Sex abuse education bill stumps Utah lawmakers

Sex abuse education bill stumps Utah lawmakers

(Utah) Legislators abruptly adjourned a Utah House Education Committee hearing over a bill that would change the rules for mandatory sexual abuse education in schools by requiring parents to “opt-in” or formally request that their child be exposed to the lessons.

A motion to approve HB 335, which would modify the law requiring a student to be opted-out of the program, was left on the table Friday as flustered legislators agreed to revisit the issue.

The bill’s author, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said it is aimed at giving parents greater authority over who teaches their child about such intimate subject matter as well as when and how that information is delivered.

Opponents argue that parents already have that authority through the opt-out process and that HB 335 would only serve to protect those who may be perpetrating the abuse by making it easier to shield their children from learning how to report it.

“One of my concerns about the bill is that if a parent were abusing a child, and that child brought a note home saying ‘here’s an opportunity to opt-in to discussion about abuse and how to report it,’ why would a parent in that situation sign it?” Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, asked at the meeting.

“I’m very concerned that we’re going backward on this and are putting kids in danger,” added Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay.

When the existing child sexual abuse prevention and education law was passed in 2014, the bill sponsor Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News at the time that in 94 percent of the state’s child sexual abuse cases the perpetrator is someone the child already knows. In 72 percent of the cases, she said, the abuser is a parent.

During last week’s hearing, however, Stratton said that only in 11 percent of sexual abuse cases involving children was a parent found to have committed the crime.

Based on nation-wide statistics gathered by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in 2005, a parent was found to be the abuser in nearly 80 percent of cases. These statistics include cases of child neglect and physical abuse as well as sexual abuse.

In Utah, of the more than 20,000 cases reported to Child Protective Services, 28 percent of confirmed allegations investigated involved sexual abuse – making it the most frequent type of case, according to the state’s 2015 Child and Family Services annual report.

Still, a student’s parent or guardian should hold the primary role in educating their child, and the state should play a secondary role, said Laura Bunker, president of United Families International, speaking in support of the bill.

“While it is painful that a small percentage of parents are perpetrators, the reality is the vast majority of parents are their child’s greatest protectors,” Bunker said. “We need to maximize that tremendous resource.”

But one mother speaking in opposition to HB 335 choked up as she told lawmakers that if not for the school’s sexual abuse education program – which she wasn’t even aware of at the time – she may not have known that her two daughters were being molested. What the girls learned in the program gave them the courage to tell someone about what their own father, and her husband at the time, was doing to them, she said.

Requiring every parent to opt-in, some said, would certainly result in fewer students participating. Supporters of the proposed amendment, however, said it is necessary for parents who may not be notified that the program is happening, and therefore, would not be able to opt-out their child.

The 2014 act required the State Board of Education and Department of Human Services to approve instructional materials for child sexual abuse prevention, awareness training and instruction for school personnel and the parents or guardians of elementary school students.

In addition, schools could provide age-appropriate child sexual abuse prevention and awareness instruction to elementary school students.

Children who are victims of prolonged sexual abuse often develop low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, alcoholism or of substance abuse issues, and suicidal ideation, according to the National Center for The Victims of Crime. Short term effects can include trouble sleeping, behavior or performance problems at school, and unwillingness to participate in either school or social activities.