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Maryland legislative roundup: sexual assault bills | COMMENTARY

In this Feb. 28, 2019 photo, Del. C.T. Wilson stands outside the Maryland House of Delegates in Annapolis, Md. Wilson, a survivor of child sexual abuse who has spoken of his experience as he has advocated for laws to protect children, is sponsoring legislation in Maryland to remove limitations on when an adult survivor of child sexual abuse can file a civil lawsuit.
In this Feb. 28, 2019 photo, Del. C.T. Wilson stands outside the Maryland House of Delegates in Annapolis, Md. Wilson, a survivor of child sexual abuse who has spoken of his experience as he has advocated for laws to protect children, is sponsoring legislation in Maryland to remove limitations on when an adult survivor of child sexual abuse can file a civil lawsuit.(Brian Witte/AP)

On Monday, a New York jury found filmmaker Harvey Weinstein guilty of rape and criminal sexual assault; he faces up to 29 years in prison in that case and has further criminal charges pending in a California court. It was a watershed moment for all the women who’d come forward to speak out against the powerful producer and the many other men across industries who’ve abused their positions through the years to take advantage of colleagues sexually. They were all called out as part of the #MeToo movement for accountability.

In Maryland, there are several bills under consideration during this legislative session that seek to bolster rights for victims of sexual misconduct or outright prevent it, from education programs in schools to forcing police to ban a practice allowing victims to waive prosecution. Here’s a look at some of them, and what we think should happen with each.

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S.B. 807/H.B. 1575: Victims of sexually assaultive behavior, “waivers of rights” prohibition

Sponsors: Democratic Sens. Shelly L. Hettleman (Baltimore County) and Sarah K. Elfreth (Anne Arundel County); and Democratic Del. J. Sandy Bartlett of Anne Arundel County.

Synopsis: Prevents law enforcement from offering victims of sexual assault any kind of “waiver form” or verbal agreement — even if they request it — that relieves officers from a duty to investigate, prevents or limits prosecution of a perpetrator or restricts the victim’s rights to pursue related civil action.

Analysis: Police Departments throughout the country, and even some military outlets, have long offered victims of sexual assault the chance to start “putting it all behind them,” or something similarly patronizing, by signing a waiver that lets police off the hook for pursuing the perpetrator. Such forms have been used hundreds of times in Maryland (172 times in Baltimore County alone, from 2017 to 2018).

And while there’s an argument to be made that such waivers relieve victims from having to live through the pain and public scrutiny that might accompany an investigation and prosecution — a very real concern — we can’t just ignore dangerous acts, especially if they might occur again against someone else. Rape is about as violent as you can get with another person, short of murder. Police wouldn’t let a killer go free because the victim’s family asked, why a sexual predator, then?

Prosecution is, of course, much easier with cooperation from the victim, but non-cooperation doesn’t absolve law enforcement of their duty to pursue justice and protect the public. Most Baltimore-area police departments say they no longer use these kinds of waivers (Harford County says it uses them “sparingly”) or never did, but why leave the door open? Such waiver agreements have been used improperly in the past to pressure victims into silence, and in one appalling incident reviewed by The Sun, a 21-year-old victim was coerced into signing away her rights while in the hospital, under the influence of alcohol and still waiting for the sexual assault forensic exam.

We already know reports of sexual violence are often discounted by police officers too willing to blame the victim, discredit their claims and “systematically” under-investigate, as the U.S. Justice Department found in 2016 of the Baltimore City Police Department. There are better ways to protect victims and ease their path through the justice system than by ignoring their crimes.

Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

H.B. 974: Hidden Predator Act of 2020

Sponsors: Democratic Dels. C. T. Wilson (Charles County); Shelly L. Hettleman (Baltimore County); and Lesley J. Lopez, David Moon, Emily Shetty and Vaughn Stewart of Montgomery County.

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Synopsis: Allows adult victims of child sexual abuse to file “an action for damages” at any time, regardless of how long ago the incidents occurred.

Analysis: This bill was first introduced last year by Del. C.T. Wilson of Charles County, himself a survivor of child sexual abuse, and it sailed through the House only to be crushed in the Senate — the victim of a 5-5 deadlock in that body’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, when progressive Democrat Jill Carter unexpectedly sided with four conservative Republicans to kill it.

Indeed, the bill has had strong opposition, most of it coming from the Catholic Church, no doubt terrified by the monsoon of lawsuits and settlement conferences that could result from such a law change, as well as a provision within the bill that would open a two-year window for those who were previously barred from suing to do so retroactively.

The Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Boy Scouts of America last week filed for bankruptcy, blaming, in part, sexual abuse lawsuits. But with all due respect, that’s not the victims’ problem. Statutes of limitations, requiring lawsuits or charges to be brought within a specified period, are generally put in place to prevent frivolous cases, ensure that evidence is preserved and not lost to time and to show the seriousness of the filer. But child sexual abuse cases by their nature are not timely unless the abuse is known and the child has someone who can act on their behalf while still a minor. For many people, it may be decades before they understand what happened to them was abuse or are able to come to terms with the idea that it wasn’t their fault and gather the courage necessary to come forward despite the stigma they’ll likely face.

Abusers, or those who shielded them, deserve to be called to account for their actions whenever they occurred, otherwise the only ones suffering consequences are the victims.

Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

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H.B. 1248: Sexual assault evidence kits: voluntary payment for testing

Sponsors: Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., a Baltimore City Democrat.

Synopsis: Authorizes a victim of sexual assault, or the person’s insurance carrier, to pay for the testing of a sexual assault evidence kit that has been languishing without analysis for six months or longer after being given to a law enforcement agency.

Analysis: In January, a new law went into effect requiring law enforcement agencies to submit sexual assault evidence collection kits to labs within 30 days of receipt and for the labs to report yearly how quickly they’re doing the analysis. The measure is meant to address a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits throughout the state. Legislators also launched a grant program to provide funding to law enforcement agencies to help pay for the testing.

Of course, those two laws may not be enough to ensure that what is supposed to happen actually does. But just because a law enforcement agency has failed to do its duty or a lab is behind schedule, does not mean the onus should fall on the victim or their insurance company. Rape kit testing can cost $3,000 to $4,000 and is an evidence collection tool of law enforcement, and that’s who should pay for it. Victims should never be asked to pay for proper police work and their own evidence.

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Editorial board recommendation: Fail.

H.B. 575: Middle school human sex trafficking awareness and prevention program

Sponsors: Too many to name: 57 delegates from all over the state, both Republicans and Democrats.

Synopsis: Requires the State Board of Education and non-public schools teaching children in 6th through 8th grades to develop and implement “a program of age-appropriate education on the awareness and prevention of sexual abuse and assault” and “human and sex trafficking.”

Analysis: Local school systems are required to provide an age-appropriate health education program to students in kindergarten right up through the 12th grade, and state laws and regulations require that certain topics be covered including: drug addiction and prevention, CPR, family life and human sexuality, nutrition and fitness, disease prevention and control and “the awareness and prevention of sexual abuse and assault.” A new health education framework adopted in December additionally addresses human trafficking specifically in grade 7, and associated circumstances — including “harassment, abuse, assault, exploitation, and boundary violations” — are taught in grades 6 and 8. So, it would largely seem that this bill is unnecessary. But given that so many other health topics are explicitly legislated, and the bill has widespread, bipartisan support, it can’t hurt.

Editorial board recommendation: Pass.

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