Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

January 10, 2013

Group lobbies Senate to enhance child protection laws

Lisa Trigg
CNHI

— The trauma that a Crawfordsville family endured last March when a 16-year-old boy went missing for four days has caught the attention of the Indiana Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law.

The boy, now 17, willingly left his home to go with a middle-aged mental health therapist to Terre Haute, where the boy and therapist are alleged to have engaged in sexual intercourse multiple times during a four-day period.

While the boy’s parents, police, and prosecutors in both Montgomery and Vigo counties agreed that the therapist should be punished for a suspected breach of trust with the boy, no criminal charges could be successfully applied to the circumstances because of the language in Indiana’s child seduction statute.

That “loophole” took the teenager’s family — along with Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt — to the Indiana Statehouse where they advocated a change in the law to apply to all persons of trust who have sex with 16- and 17-year-old children.

“We were appalled by the facts of the case,” Modesitt said to the committee, noting that the parents had done the right thing in seeking out a counselor for their foster son because of his emotional issues stemming from prior neglect by his biological parents.

But after realizing that child molestation could not be charged because the boy was older than age 14, and that sexual misconduct with a minor did not apply because the boy was not age 14 or 15, the prosecution team was surprised to see that the child solicitation statute applies only to teachers, childcare workers, and military recruiters who become sexually involved with teens ages 16 and 17. The law does not cover therapists, mental health counselors, psychiatrists, or psychologists.

“We all looked at each other and said, ‘That just doesn’t seem right,’” Modesitt told the Senate committee.

As it turns out, the therapist — who actually had lost the job as a therapist the week before taking the boy to Terre Haute — was charged in Montgomery County with the misdemeanor of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, because the boy could be considered a runaway.

Sen. Phil Boots (R-Crawfordsville) acknowledged to the senate committee that Indiana law sets 16 as the age of legal consent. But he said he believes that any licensed individual or therapist in a position of trust should not be able to engage in sex with a 16- or 17-year-old client and get away with it.

“I think this was an oversight,” Boots said of the child seduction law. “We should have some control over mental health counselors.”

The boy’s mother said that most foster children see a therapist at some time because of the trauma they have endured. That means those children are at risk of child seduction once they reach the ages of 16 and 17, she said.

In testimony during the hearing, the teen boy’s mother said of the former therapist: “We believe [the therapist] was fully aware of the law and how it was worded ... and used the system to [the therapist’s] advantage.”

Dave Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, told the committee he agreed with Modesitt that state law as it now stands needs to be modified to include other adults, such as addictions counselors and camp counselors, because they are in positions of trust.

As a former county prosecutor, Powell said he has seen difficult child seduction cases where the teenage victim did not want charges filed against the adult because the child was “in love or infatuated” with the provider. But, the child’s parents still wanted something done.

Matthew Brooks, chief executive officer of the Indiana Council of Community Mental Health Centers, also told legislators that he supports a change in the law.

“The integrity of mental health professionals is important,” Brooks said, noting that the therapist’s actions in the Vigo County case has most likely led to a loss of his license to practice.

And the problem of adult-child sexual relationships is not limited to mental health professionals, Anita Carpenter, chief executive officer of the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the committee.

Last year, the coalition worked on more than 10 similar cases that involved clergy, coaches, therapists, and other adults in positions of trust, Carpenter said.

Sen. Mark Stoops (D-Bloomington) said he knows of a similar case in his Monroe County district where a child was seduced by a therapist, but no criminal charges could be filed.

Sen. Karen Tallian  (D-Portage) questioned the long list of professional adults offered for inclusion in an amended bill.

“I will never vote for this list,” Tallian said of the practicality of including all possible offenders. “Why not do a more general way of including people?”

Committee Chairman Mike Young (R-Indianapolis) agreed with Tallian that the best way to “make sure it’s right and cover loopholes” is to send the proposal to a criminal law subcommittee for review. He appointed Tallion, along with Sens. John Waterman, Rodric Bray, Susan Click, and Lonnie Randolph to the subcommittee to report back.

Both Modesitt and Boots said after the hearing that they were pleased the committee is considering amendments to the law.

“Any legislation we compose here is never all-encompassing,” Boots said. “That is why the committee process works. I’m very happy that the discussion took place, and the committee took it under consideration.”

Modisett added, “We were asking for some proposed changes, and they opened the door to make it even bigger. Ultimately, the goal is to protect our children.”