It’s always nice to see a piece of bad legislation salvaged and turned into a good law, and that might be what happens with a proposal meant to protect child sexual abuse victims in Louisiana. But there’s a chance it could run into the same anachronistic thinking around criminal justice in our state that’s blunted or deterred similar efforts in the past.
Last year, Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored a bill that would have allowed for the surgical castration of sex offenders whose victims were younger than 13. It became clear immediately that the bill had no chance at approval, so Barrow authored a study resolution to examine the best practices for deterring sex offenses against children.
The panel conducting that study, which Barrow leads, held its first meeting Tuesday. From the start, members reiterated that castration had to be taken off the table as an option.
“Castration is not a proven therapy for treating people with sexual dysfunction and propensity for sexual offense,” said Christine Lobre, trauma and resilience strategies lead for the Louisiana Department of Health. She and others noted that castration isn’t scientifically proven to prevent a sexual offender from harming a child; it only removes one of their options.
Colin Reingold, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, reminded Barrow castration comes with constitutional concerns, and that members of the American Medical Association have deemed the surgery unethical and will not perform it.
Study panel members stressed a proactive approach to reduce the instances of sex offenses involving children, rather than a focus on criminal consequences after the trauma takes place.
Lobre noted how overcrowding in prisons increases the likelihood of sexual assaults, and that those victims often go on to become sexual offenders.
“We’re creating systems of abuse,” she said.
Education should also be stressed so that children who suffer sexual trauma are able to effectively communicate with parents, teachers and caregivers, according to panelists.
Morgan Lamandre with the survivors’ advocacy group Sexual Trauma and Response (STAR) shared the story of a young girl who was being abused at school and told her mother about someone touching her “cookie.” The woman misunderstood her daughter and encouraged her to share, which may have prolonged the child’s trauma.
Any attempts to shield young people intellectually as a sole means of prevention are destined to fail.
Legislation with that aim received unanimous approval from the Louisiana Legislature and was signed into law in 2014. Then-Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, sponsored the proposal that requires age- and grade-appropriate instruction for children on sexual abuse awareness and prevention. Jackson, now a state senator, amended the law last year to require school districts to report the specific courses they provide on the subject matter to the state.
Something interesting happened to the bill when it was making its way through the Senate nine years ago. Although there was never opposition when it came time to vote on the proposal in either chamber, Jackson had it amended in the Senate Education Committee to remove references to “sexual abuse” and replace them with “child.”
“I don’t want it ever to be misconstrued that we were trying to teach sex education in school,” Jackson said. The end result was that language in the law required instruction on “child assault awareness and prevention.”
Jackson’s change to her bill was mentioned at Tuesday’s panel hearing, and it’s exactly this kind of mindset that could thwart any potential solutions members might offer. If we’re going to blush or bristle at the mere mention of sex education in classrooms, how can we ever expect to ensure children are adequately informed to prevent themselves from becoming sexual abuse victims?
No one is suggesting child sex abusers escape consequences for their actions. Laws are already in place to make sure the punishment fits the crime, and now a corresponding emphasis needs to be placed on prevention. This includes identifying and providing aid to individuals before they can offend, and arming children with all the information necessary to keep them safe.
Any attempts to shield young people intellectually as a sole means of prevention are destined to fail, and they would only increase the likelihood that a victim turns into a future perpetrator.
Like castration, it’s an ineffective approach that only creates more problems than it solves.
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