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Raising The Stakes

By Zach Dundas
Originally published in Willamette Week, November 17, 1999.

If there's one thing, more than any other, likely to ignite the powder keg of righteous anger inside Andrew Vachss, it's the fact that, in many places, child molesters are better off raping their own kids than someone else's.

He calls it the incest exemption, a sentencing loophole that allows child molesters to receive lighter sentences if they're related to their victims. Wiping this anomaly from statute books across the country is the latest objective in Vachss' constantly morphing holy war against child abuse.

"It's foul," the author and activist says. "I do not know how anybody can defend for me a different criminal justice standard for people who rape their own babies as opposed to strangers' babies, unless they want to say children are property, and you're allowed to burn down your own house, but not your neighbor's."

Currently, Oregon and 44 other states have laws that allow people who commit incest to skate by with lighter sentences than other child molesters, as do Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. In Oregon, it's theoretically possible for offenders to receive probation with no jail time for committing incest with a minor. According to Multnomah County Senior Deputy District Attorney Charlene Woods, however, people who molest children under age 14 are almost always charged with crimes bearing mandatory prison time under Measure 11, regardless of whether they're related to the victim. Sex Abuse I, the most common charge for such a case, carries a minimum of 75 months in prison.

Vachss thinks he has the solution that will apply across the country: a congressional act that would cut off federal funds from states that failed to reform their laws on incest and molestation. The author first pushed the cause in Parade magazine, the usually lukewarm weekly inserted in Sunday newspapers across the country. He describes this vehicle for his trenchant opinion essays in purely utilitarian terms.

"No one ever wrote a book read by as many people as one issue of Parade," he says.

A Vachss broadside on the incest exemption, published in the magazine last year, drew interest from Washington—which, Vachss says, was precisely the point. The result is the Child Abuse Reform and Enforcement Act, or CARE Act, a bill slated for debate during next year's congressional session.

Reps. Robert Ney and Michael Oxley, both Republicans from Ohio, are the primary sponsors of the bill, which has yet to start the pilgrimage through committee. So far, it has attracted the support of odd bedfellows ranging from Georgian paleo-conservative Bob Barr to Robert Underwood, Guam's congressional delegate. Vachss says he hopes pressure brought to bear via the Internet will bring more congressmen aboard; ultimately, he and his allies hope to draw most representatives into taking a position on the bill before the next session of Congress.

Neil Vulz, Ney's chief of staff, says efforts to recruit more cosponsors are going well, although he notes that no bill has an easy time in the current, deeply divided Congress.

Vachss sees no room for ideological division on the bill.

"You've got all these people screaming, ‘I like children. I'd do anything for children,'" Vachss says. "Well, get off your butts enough to do the right thing with this one piece of Legislation. This is not a bill you can debate about. Who's going to stand up and say, ‘Incest deserves legal protection?' Certainly, people say that. I can't imagine a politician saying that. We were always looking for the litmus test. I believe we have one." —ZD


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