Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mark Obenshain Announces Measures to Protect Children from Predators in Virginia

Today, Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), the Republican nominee for Attorney General, unveiled the third part of his "Safe Communities Agenda," announcing his plan to combat child predators, cracking down on those who sexually abuse children and better equipping families and to keep their children safe from abuse and assault. He was joined in the announcement by Delegate Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville), the Vice Chair of the Virginia State Crime Commission.

Said Obenshain, "Child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than anyone wants to believe. Children are victimized by family members, friends, and neighbors as well as complete strangers, and increasingly by online predators. One in five teenagers receives an unwanted sexual advance online and as many as one in five girls and one in twenty boys will be victims of some form of child sexual abuse. Here in Virginia, we've always done an excellent job of going after these predators, but with numbers this stark, there's still more to do."

Obenshain continued, "As Attorney General, I will fight to protect our children from predators, partnering with law enforcement and prosecutors to crack down on offenders and establishing procedures to better identify and assist victims of abuse."

Obenshain's plan includes:
  • Deploying child exploitation prosecutors regionally to better assist in the prosecution of child exploitation across Virginia;
  • Enhancing penalties for those who exploit a custodial or supervisory relationship with a child;
  • Making it a separate felony offense to use the internet to recruit for prostitution or the manufacture of child pornography;
  • Adopting new procedures to protect children in homes with child pornography and determine if they are at risk for sexual abuse;
  • Ensuring that Sexual Assault Response Teams are properly equipped to provide services to sexually abused children, among other priorities; and
  • Promoting the use of "courthouse dogs" to comfort and reassure young victims.
(Full details of Obenshain's plan follow.)

Delegate Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville), Vice Chair of the Virginia Crime Commission and Senator Obenshain's former rival for the Republican nomination, added, "Mark Obenshain has been a true champion in the fight against child predators, and in 2012, he was the Senate patron of the legislation mandating a life sentence for an adult who rapes a child. These proposals will continue and expand upon that important work." 

Senator Obenshain has long championed measures to protect children from sexual abuse. In 2012, he patroned successful legislation imposing a mandatory life sentence for the rape of a child under the age of thirteen (SB 436), and in 2007, he carried the bill that imposed forfeiture requirements for equipment used in connection with the possession or production of child pornography (SB 1239). He also patroned legislation adding to the sex offender registry those who solicit minors online (SB 575 of 2004), among other successful legislative initiatives in this area.

"Mark Obenshain's plan will enhance law enforcement's ability to go after the worst of the worst," added Fauquier County Commonwealth's Attorney James ("Jim") Fisher. "But more than that, it's clear that he's looking out for the wellbeing of the victims. I've seen courthouse dogs in action, and Fauquier County is in line to receive one. It's incredible to see how something so simple can meet the emotional needs of an abused child. I'm excited about Senator Obenshain's interest in placing service dogs in courthouses across Virginia."

Under Attorney General Cuccinelli, convictions for internet child predators are up 77% since 2010, and should increase further once the expansion of the computer forensic lab is complete. "I look forward to building on the successful efforts already underway here in Virginia, and to implementing new measures to remain a step ahead of those who would do our children harm," Obenshain concluded.

Scope of the Problem
  • According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse of some kind
  • One in five teenagers who use the internet regularly say they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation online, and only a quarter of those who received such a solicitation tell a parent or other adult
  • According to the "Your Internet Safety Survey," one in 33 youths receive an "aggressive sexual solicitation" online in any given year, meaning that a predator contacted the adolescent by phone or postal mail, or asked to meet them somewhere
  • Per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.6% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 are victims of rape/sexual assault
  • There were 2.7  rapes/sexual assaults per 1,000 children ages 12-14 in 2010, and 1.7 per 1,000 for children ages 15-17, according to the BJS
  • Children are most vulnerable to child sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13
  • According to a National Institute of Justice report, three out of four sexually assaulted adolescents were victimized by someone they knew well
  • The legacy of child sexual abuse lingers throughout the victim's life, with one study suggesting that child victims of rape or attempted rape were nearly 14 times more likely to experience rape or attempted rape in their first year of college
  • According to the National Juvenile Online Victimization Study, 40% of child pornography possessors had also sexually victimized children
  • Child pornography became a $3 billion / year industry by 2005, and in 2008, the Internet Watch Foundation had identified 1536 individual child abuse domains
  • Of child pornography possessors arrested between 2000 and 2001, 83% had images involving children between the ages of 6 and 12, 39% had images of children ages 3-5, and 19% had images of infants and toddlers under age 3
  • Nationally, the FBI has secured 11,400 convictions in child pornography/child sexual exploitation cases through the Innocent Images National Initiative since its inception in 1995

Detailed Outline of Obenshain Plan

Create Regional Child Exploitation Prosecutors
  • There are currently three attorneys in the Computer Crimes Section forming a "flying squad," traveling across Virginia to prosecute child exploitation cases
  • The Section has obtained seventy-five convictions in 23 separate jurisdictions over the past three years, a success worth building on
  • The Attorney General's office is an affiliate member of Virginia's two Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces: the Southern Virginia ICAC Task Force, based out of the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, and the NOVA-DC ICAC, with the Virginia State Police as coordinating agency
  • Assistant Attorney Generals have been assigned to specific regions as Special Gang Prosecutors, allowing them to hone in on more cases; a similar model could be employed for child exploitation cases
  • Proposal: Expand the number of child exploitation prosecutors in the Attorney General's office, and deploy several regionally to better prosecute cases of child exploitation across Virginia
Enhance Penalties For Exploiting Custodial or Supervisory Relationships
  • Taking indecent liberties with a child with whom the perpetrator has a custodial or supervisory relationship is currently a Class 6 felony if the child is 15-17 and a Class 5 felony if the child is under 15, and involves proposing genital fondling or intercourse, exposure, proposing that a child engage in fondling or intercourse with another person, and sexual abuse
  • Those in custodial and supervisory relationships include parents, grandparents, guardians, teachers, coaches, counselors, and others in a position of authority over a child
  • Cases involving adults in a relationship of authority with a victim merit particularly steep penalties, as they betray—and prey upon—the basic trust that a child rightly has for adults in such positions
  • Proposal: Back legislation increasing the penalty to a Class 5 felony in cases involving victims ages 15-17 and a Class 4 felony in cases involving victims under the age of 15
Make Recruitment for Prostitution or Child Pornography a Separate Felony
  • Traffickers and pimps trawl chat rooms and forums and send emails to recruit children—often unwitting—into prostitution and child pornography
  • It can be difficult to go after these criminals until they actually victimize a child solicited online
  • Proposal: Work with the General Assembly on legislation making it a separate felony offense to use the internet to recruit persons to engage in prostitution, the manufacture of child pornography, or to aid human trafficking in any way
Protect Children in Homes with Child Pornography
  • The Computer Crimes Section within the Attorney General's office works closely with local law enforcement and the two regional ICACs to investigate and prosecute child pornography, though there is room for further expansion of these efforts
  • Children living with an adult who possesses or distributes child pornography are likely to be at a particularly high risk of abuse and sexual exploitation 
  • Although the pending completion of a new forensic lab and mobile forensic unit will greatly reduce the backlog in the forensic examination of computers seized in child pornography cases, it is likely that there will continue to be some delays and need for prioritization of cases
  • Proposal: Should a child be found in a home with child pornography, Child Protective Services shall conduct a forensic interview of all children in the home to determine whether they have been subject to or are at risk for sexual abuse or exploitation, and forensic examination of any computers seized in a home with children should be prioritized if any backlog exists
Make Evidence of Prior Offenses Against Children Admissible in Court
  • Evidence of prior offenses against children is admissible under federal rules of evidence, but not in state prosecution of child sex crimes
  • The difficulties involved in prosecuting cases involving young victims makes this evidentiary rule particularly valuable
  • Proposal: Advocate for legislation making prior convictions for offenses against children admissible in child sex crimes cases
    • Note: Legislation to this effect was introduced by both of my opponents this year—Senator Herring (general election) and Delegate Bell (nomination contest)—so I can by no means claim credit, but it is a good policy, and if elected Attorney General, I will work with the General Assembly to implement it
Restrict Bond for Those Possessing Pornography Involving Young Children
  • Currently, the presumption against bond only attaches for the solicitation and production of child pornography, but those in possession of child pornography—especially pornography involving particularly young children—pose a similar threat of continued exploitation of children
  • Proposal: Work with the General Assembly to develop legislation establishing a presumption against bond for those in possession of child pornography featuring young children
Aid Sexual Assault Response Teams and Raise Awareness of Victim Services
  • Currently, not all Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) are properly equipped to provide services to sexually abused children
  • Victims are unlikely to be aware of the range of services available to them
  • Proposal: Aid and encourage Sexual Assault Response Teams to be equipped to provide services to sexually abused children, and raise awareness of the existing range of victim services through materials distributed through Victim Witness Coordinators and organizations serving victims of abuse and exploitation
Promote Broader Use of "Courthouse Dogs"
  • Victims—especially young victims—of sexual assault and exploitation are often quite understandably traumatized both by their experience and by their removal from an abusive situation
  • Prince William and Stafford maintain facility dogs—service dogs assigned to an institution rather than an individual—to comfort victims and put them at ease, and Fauquier County is in line to receive one
  • Proposal: Encourage broader use of "courthouse dogs" across Virginia and aid Commonwealth's Attorneys in seeking grants or nonprofit support to fund them  
Promote Greater Education and Awareness
  • The Office of the Attorney General produces and makes available a number of materials on child exploitation
  • Through the Safety Net Program, OAG attorneys deliver talks at schools and parental organizations about internet safety and similar topics
  • Parents, teachers, and others often miss the warning signs of sexual abuse
  • Proposal: Expand upon existing efforts by establishing a working group to develop and distribute educational materials for parents and others on the warning signs of sexual abuse, providing brochures in OBGYN offices and similar settings and producing age-appropriate videos for schools, to be made available online as well; establish a greater educational presence with the expansion of the Safety Net Program and by working with the Virginia Department of Education to train teachers and school resource officers on how to identify signs of sexual abuse and proper ways of discussing it with children who may be victims; and expanding internet safety materials to be made available to parents and children online and through the school system 
Conduct Regular Reviews of Laws on Child Predators
  • Child predators take advantage of technological advances and legal limitations to exploit children, necessitating a regular review to ensure that the laws of the Commonwealth are appropriately responding to the threat
  • Many policy issues regarding child predators are complex and involve a range of stakeholders who deserve to be consulted and have a seat at the table
  • Proposal: Continually review the law with prosecutors, law enforcement officers, victim advocacy groups, and other stakeholders to keep up with the latest threats and address a range of policy issues, from data retention requirements to sentencing, building on the success of local Sexual Assault Response Teams


Mark's website: http://www.markobenshain.com

Mark on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/markobenshain

Mark on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/markobenshain