PHOENIX — A special committee wants to revamp Arizona’s sex abuse laws to make it easier to prosecute some people who violate their position of trust with their youthful victims.
But members of the Justice for Victims of Child Sex Abuse Task Force stopped short of recommending that those who were victims of child sex abuse get more time to sue their assailants.
In a report issued Friday, the committee concluded that the definition of who is in a “position of trust” is too narrow.
That definition can be important in cases when the victim was 15 through 17 years of age. If the alleged assailant was in a position of trust, then prosecutors need not prove that the victim did not consent.
Right now, the list ranges from parents, teachers, coaches, clergymen to those who are in a relationship with the minor’s parent.
The proposal would expand that list to any relatives by blood or marriage to the third degree, with the exception of siblings. Also added would be employers and bosses, adults that live in the same house and any person at least 10 years older than the minor who has a relationship with the minor or the minor’s family.
It also would add all school employees to the list and not just teachers or educators. And youth pastors would joint clergy and priests as those in trust.
The decision by Gov. Doug Ducey to set up the task force and proposed recommendations came the same day he signed legislation to give those who were sexually assaulted or abused as children more time to sue, no matter how long ago the event occurred.
That new law scrapped existing statutes, which required victims to sue before their 20th birthday or forfeit their legal rights. Now they will have until age 30.
That is far less than originally sought by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, who also was co-chair of the task force. But it was the best deal he could get through the Legislature — at that time.
The panel did conclude that having a hard-and-fast cutoff at age 30 “is not sufficient.” But committee members did not recommend expanding the ability to sue, concluding they did not have enough time or information to pursue the matter and file the report by the Dec. 1 deadline.
But Boyer said that, as far as he’s concerned, the issue is not dead. The senator said he will try to get colleagues to revisit the issue when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
He cited testimony to the task force by Joelle Casteix, a survivor of childhood sexual assault by a staffer at a Catholic school, now a member of the Zero Abuse Project. Boyer said he asked her at what age victims should know they have been sexually abused as children, thinking she would suggest raising the age to 55.
“She said, ‘I don’t think there should be a statute of limitations at all,’ ” he recalled.
Boyer also said there was testimony from a pediatric psychologist.
“He mentioned the reasons why it takes so long,” the senator said, given the nature of the physical and emotional trauma that occurs to children, particularly when they are victimized by those in positions of trust. “He gave us the reasons for why it takes decades for victims to come forward.”
There may be some tools to help with that quest.
One of the elements of the legislation approved earlier this year opened up a temporary legal “window” for lawsuits by those whose time to file suit already had expired. They will have until the end of 2020 to bring their claims, no matter how many years ago the incidents occurred.
The task force is recommending that courts monitor those cases, using what it learns to analyze the evidence about delayed disclosure to make recommendations for what would be an appropriate age for a statute of limitations.
Boyer said that could help convince legislators to revisit the issue and set the age higher than 30.
One recommendation of particular concern to Boyer deals with how teachers communicate with students.
“I don’t believe that any teacher should be on social media with their students,’’ he said. “I think that there are official means or methods of communicating with their students that doesn’t involve one-on-one direct messaging.”
The task force is recommending that the state Board of Education come up with some guidelines on not just social media but also cell phone use between students and teachers.
Another recommendation also seeks to expand the power of the state board to review the conduct of uncertified educators who are in the classroom.
Right now, the report says, the board has oversight of only certified teachers with the power to revoke their credentials. But that ignores the fact there are 6,000 people in classrooms in public and charter schools who are not certified and not subject to having their ability to teach rescinded by the board.
Along the same lines, task force members point out that the investigative unit at the state Department of Education consists of one chief, four investigators and one administrative assistant.
What that means, the report says, is each investigator currently has a caseload of between 120 and 150 cases; the education department says 50 is the “appropriate and manageable amount.”
The report also includes a proposal to place special conditions on those convicted of sex trafficking crimes when they are placed on probation.
That, task force members said, could include curfews, staying away from school grounds unless registered as a student there, not going to a hotel without prior written approval of a probation officer and successfully completing domestic violence counseling.
Some of what the committee is recommending, like the additional investigators for the Department of Education, will require cash.
For example, the task force said there should be grants available to counties to establish or expand their efforts to investigate “cold cases” of child sex abuse, whether or not there is DNA evidence. It also seeks creation and funding for the Department of Public Safety to create a statewide database to track and update the status on confirmed sexual predators and sex traffickers.
Ducey press aide Patrick Ptak said the governor is reviewing the recommendations. But he said Ducey is “pleased” with what he has seen “and will work with the Legislature.”
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