Senators Reveal Sexual Abuse Stories During Debate on Abuse Prevention

Senate Chamber (2)It is rare for anyone, let alone public figures, to open up and publicly discuss personal experiences related to childhood sexual abuse and assault. On Tuesday afternoon, however, three senators shared their personal stories for the first time during a floor debate on HB 286 – Child Sexual Abuse Prevention.

Representative Angela Romero’s (Democrat – SLC) bill would allow public schools to teach children—through age-appropriate instruction—how to recognize, avoid, and report abusive situations and acts. The bill was passed unanimously in a House committee, unanimously by the full House, and unanimously by a Senate committee. But when it made it to the full Senate for its first of two votes by that full body, debate arose when Senator Margaret Dayton (Republican – Orem) sought to amend the bill. Dayton’s amendment would change the class from “opt-out,” where parents can choose not to have their children attend the abuse prevention classes, to “opt-in,” where parents have to specifically sign a note allowing their children to attend. While that may sound like a minor change, supporters of the bill from both sides of the aisle quickly pointed out that the change could completely “gut” the bill because many students’ parents may not notice the note they need to sign or, potentially, purposefully withhold their children from the class because they are being abused at home.

[pullquote]This isn’t a discussion about sex or sexuality,” Osmond added, “this is about a child recognizing that it is okay to say ‘no,’ and to stop an adult in any setting, whether it is in the home, whether it is in the school, or in any other environment where they feel unsafe – Senator Aaron Osmond[/pullquote] “I want to make sure we are not creating in children a sense of distrust of all adults,” Dayton told the body, “I’m not even sure if [such classes] should be in the schools, if this is the type of thing that should be taught [in the classroom]. But if we’re going to put it in the schools, I think we need to recognize that the parents need to be the primary guardian and protector of their child and their innocence in the instruction that they are getting.”

Dayton’s amendment has the strong backing of conservative organizations like the Utah Eagle Forum. The organization’s leader, Gayle Ruzicka, has repeatedly encouraged Representatives and Senators to support such a change.

Senator Stewart Adams (Republican – Layton), the Senate sponsor of Romero’s bill, rebuffed the amendment. “The bill addresses all of the concerns that have been talked about. The written consent would be problematic simply because there is the thought that perhaps a parent who has a problem would, of course, not give that written consent, and that becomes problematic to an abuser of a child.”

Supporters of the bill have highlighted that in the majority of cases where a child is being abused, their abuser is a close relative.

Senator Pat Jones (Democrat – Salt Lake City) noted that such an amendment was shot down in committee and asked the rhetorical question, “This was heard in the committee I sit on, and it was defeated soundly… what happens [when the abuse prevention class is opt-in], and there are a number of parents who are the perpetrators? Do you think they are actually going to opt-in to have their children taught these age appropriate materials?” She added that opt-in’s historically do not work well with programs and that parents do have the option to opt out.

It was soon after that Senator Aaron Osmond (Republican – South Jordan) rose to speak. “As a child, I too was the recipient of abuse by a non-family member. It was a very devastating experience to me, personally. My parents loved me, and they cared about me and my brothers and sisters a great deal. However, they were inundated with pressure, financial pressure and stress at home. They didn’t have the time to engage me and provide me instruction and, frankly, they would have missed these parental notices anyway. We didn’t even talk about these things as a family and we were considered a great family from a unity perspective and our membership in our religious faith, and things like that, but we didn’t talk about these issues.”

“This isn’t a discussion about sex or sexuality,” Osmond added, “this is about a child recognizing that it is okay to say ‘no,’ and to stop an adult in any setting, whether it is in the home, whether it is in the school, or in any other environment where they feel unsafe… but there are multiple parents in our society who are so stressed out, working multiple jobs, engaged in so many things, they will not engage on this issue and that child will be vulnerable.”

Emboldened by Osmond’s comments, Senator Daniel Thatcher (Republican – West Valley City) rose to tell the body that he, too, suffered abuse. He told the body that, in 7th grade, Thatcher was attacked while passing through a field. “I fought like a demon. I punched, I kicked, I scratched, I bit, and I screamed my little 70 pound head off. I was able to make enough noise that someone nearby mercifully, and gratefully heard, and came to my rescue; but not before the man had ripped the zippers off of my pants. This is happening, and statistically, Aaron and I are not the only members of this body who have had these experiences as children. This is happening, and if we do not act, it will continue to happen.”

Statistics currently estimate that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted as a child.

Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross) also informed the body that he had also had an experience with potential sexual abuse. While at a Mormon scout camp, a young Weiler was asked by a scout leader if he was willing to have photo taken with his shirt off. The scout leader then proceeded to take a second photo, this time with his arms around Weiler’s shirtless torso. It took Weiler five years to wake up and ask “What in the heck was that about? Fortunately, it never went further, but my parents never talked to me about stuff. They sent me off with my church scout group and clearly a man was working up his courage to molest a young boy and was practicing on me… my parent’s wouldn’t have opted me into this because they probably wouldn’t have read a note.”

Senator Mark Madsen (Republican – Saratoga Springs) supported Dayton’s amendment, feeling that “[the opposition to this amendment] is based on the premise that, at best families are inadequate, at worst they are the majority of the abusers, and I don’t buy that for a minute.” Senator Kevin VanTassell (Republican – Vernal) also expressed concern that the legislature is implying that anyone who opts to not allow their child to attend classes may be branded as a potential child abuser, even if they have legitimate concerns about what is being taught.

The vote to amend the bill was extremely tight, but would ultimately fail on a 12-15 vote. When time came to vote on the bill itself, it easily passed on a 20-8 vote.

A second, successful, attempt to amend the bill came on Wednesday morning, when Senator John Valentine (Republican – Orem) cross-referenced the bill with the Utah’s Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (UFERPA). Opponents to the amendment felt that this option was a work-around amendment in the 11th hour to insert an opt-in inside the bill, while Valentine and his supporters noted that UFERPA could be invoked as issues of child abuse may come up during discussions on child sexual abuse.

With the successful passage of the amendment, and having passed third reading in the Senate, the bill will be returned to the House for final approval. Time is running short on the bill and it is unknown if the House will concur with the amendments. In that situation, a conference committee would be convened to hash out the details. With a day and a half left in the legislative session, however, a resolution may not happen in time.

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