In 'love' with an 8-year-old?

Howard County Circuit Court Judge Diane Leasure got it right last week when she ruled that a Bryant Woods Elementary School teacher's aide sexually abused an 8-year-old girl by sending her dozens of suggestive love notes. Judge Leasure found that even though there was no sexual contact between the aide and the girl, the letters alone were enough to sustain charges of sexual abuse of a minor and attempted sexual abuse of a minor. Child welfare advocates hailed the decision for setting a new precedent in how such cases are handled in Maryland.

The case appears to be the first of its type in Maryland in which a defendant was found guilty of child sexual abuse in the absence of any evidence of touching or other overt physical acts. The attorney for Karl Marshall Walker Jr., the aide, conceded that his client had a "strange and inappropriate emotional attachment" to the girl but argued that there was nothing illegal about sending notes.

Judge Leasure rightly disagreed. The notes, which included such suggestive phrases as "When you hug me tight, it's the best part of my day," and "I don't think perverted thoughts about you, I just care about you," clearly crossed a line, she ruled. One note instructed the child to "tear this up after you read it, tear the other notes too," while others contained the admissions that "I am sad because I really love you and I am not supposed to," and "I do think about kissing you sometimes."

Prosecutors contended that the notes, which began in late 2009 and continued until they were discovered by another teacher at the school in March, were in fact a way of "grooming" the girl to accept more overt forms of abuse after the defendant won his victim's trust. Judge Leasure noted that the notes became progressively more "passionate," that they bordered at times on the "obsessive," and that they were clearly "sexual in nature."

That recognition led Judge Leasure to break with previous rulings that required evidence of overt physical acts to prove a crime occurred. Noting that state law allows for a conviction if "molestation or exploitation" of a child occurs, regardless of whether bodily injury to the victim results, Judge Leasure found that "sexual acts are not only limited to physical acts" and that in this case "the totality of these letters, the hugging and the hand-holding, were exploitative."

In finding this defendant guilty, Judge Leasure is in line with a growing feeling among prosecutors around the country that a broader definition of sexual abuse of minors is appropriate in cases of child molestation. Recognizing the irreparable harm that abuse causes victims, particularly young children, the National District Attorneys Association has gone on record as favoring legislation that allows courts to intervene before, rather than after, a physical act has been committed. In the Internet age, when abusers can use social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to engage in elaborate "grooming" behavior via sexually explicit messages, images and other forms of persuasion, prosecutors and judges need to take a far more aggressive approach to protect minors from sexual predators.

Though Maryland has made some recent progress in providing new safeguards for children — such as tougher registration and monitoring requirements for convicted sex offenders — many ineffective or antiquated statutes remain on the books in the form of weak child endangerment laws, loopholes in abuse-reporting requirements and overly permissive rules governing corporal punishment.

For example, Maryland has a law regarding the reporting of cases in which children are found to be in the presence of known sex offenders. But the statute, which applies to teachers, police, health practitioners and other personnel, makes such reports discretionary rather than mandatory, rendering it virtually impossible to enforce.

Similarly, Maryland still permits "reasonable" corporal punishment — even though the law also allows almost any implement to be used, from fists to paddles and electrical cords. Moreover, the state Department of Human Resources is not for the most part required to investigate child abuse and neglect cases unless there's a report of an injury. In other states, the threshold for investigation is simply whether there is a substantial risk of harm, regardless of whether the child has been injured yet. In short, many of the state's child abuse laws seem more concerned with shielding the adults who abuse children than with protecting their victims.

Those who argue that tougher laws against sexual abuse of minors could lead to more adults being charged for perfectly innocent behaviors ignore the fact that prosecutors rarely take on a case unless there's plenty of evidence of wrongdoing. In the Howard County case, Judge Leasure could rely on the defendant's own letters as evidence of criminal intent — notes the victim saved despite her abuser's instructions to destroy them. Where a predator's own words so clearly belie his protestations of innocence, judges' first duty should be protecting the child victims of abuse, not their adult tormentors.

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