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Legislation Aims to Overhaul Old Incest Laws in States

By Katherine Rizzo, Associated Press
Originally published in Dayton Daily News, March 6, 2000

WASHINGTON — A brief item in a magazine nagged at Rep. Bob Ney.

The Ohioan couldn't stop thinking about what he'd read: Laws in some states allow lighter punishments for people convicted of raping their own children than for those convicted of sexually assaulting someone else's child.

It was an unintended consequence of old laws addressing an old problem—how to discourage cousins from marrying cousins—conflicting with more modern efforts to put away sexual predators.

"I think most state legislators don't know about this," said Ney, a Republican from St. Clairsville. "I'm sure when they learn about it they'll do the right thing."

Ney said his first impulse was to check whether Ohio law treated incest differently than other child rapes, because that's where he knows the people who could set the lawbooks straight.

Ohio's law didn't need to be changed, so he decided to try to get other states to examine their laws and fix them if necessary.

But some child advocates worry that Ney's plan would hurt abuse victims.

Last summer, Ney introduced a bill that threatens to withhold a portion of federal child abuse prevention grant money from any state that doesn't quickly review and if necessary overhaul its old incest laws to put that crime on the same level as other child sexual assaults.

"We say to these states to ante up and if you rape a child, you rape a child," Ney said. "Why should you have less of a penalty because you're a relative or someone who lives in the home?"

The extent of the problem Ney is determined to fix is not easy to measure.

He said he knows from anecdotal evidence and the research of child advocate and author Andrew Vachss, whose article in Parade magazine inspired the bill, that more than 20 states have laws classifying incest as a ''Class C'' or lower crime.

But there also is anecdotal evidence that prosecutors sometimes make incest an add-on offense for extra prison time in addition to the sentence imposed under the general child sexual abuse statute.

No statistics could be found showing how often local prosecutors allow abusers to plea-bargain down to a lesser incest charge or how often prosecutors use a lesser incest charge as a way to get additional prison time for an offender.

Part of Ney's bill would require the Justice Department to start collecting detailed information about child rapes, the sentences imposed on those convicted of assaulting children and the relationship of perpetrator to victim.

Even those involved in helping incest victims aren't able to say how many children are harmed each year.

The organization Prevent Child Abuse America said a survey of child protection services across the country found about 100,000 confirmed cases of child sexual abuse in 1998, the most recent year available.

In a 1996 report on child sexual abuse, the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that birth parents were the perpetrators in 29 percent of the cases and parental substitutes, such as guardians or a parent's boyfriend, were perpetrators about 25 percent of the time.

This story ran in the Dayton Daily News and was originally published March 6, 2000.


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