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March 29, 2014

Silent Indiana: sex crimes under reported

New legislation calls for study of cause, extent of underreporting and its reasons

TERRE HAUTE — State Rep. Christina Hale is troubled by statistics showing that Indiana ranks among the worst in the nation when it comes to high school girls saying they’d been forced to have sex.

That concern also extends to the much broader issues of sex crimes against children.

Now, thanks to her concern and tenacity, legislation signed by the governor last week calls for a comprehensive study of these issues, the causes, the extent of underreporting and reasons for underreporting.

The legislation — an amendment to Senate Bill 227 — also calls for a study of the impact of social media and new technology on sex crimes against children.

Hale said she’s encouraged that the governor signed the bill into law and the study can now move forward. Once completed, she hopes to use the data to propose new legislation to combat the problem. She also hopes it will lead to increased reporting so that victims can be better connected with services.

“We don’t have the information we need to protect children from sexual violence in Indiana,” Hale said Friday. “This is the first step to take urgent action, and very necessary action. … Our children deserve to be safe from these kinds of crimes.”

There is no solid research in Indiana to show what is happening here. “I’m really interested in evidence-based policy and lawmaking,” she said. “We can’t create effective and efficient solutions until we understand what the problems are.”

The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute will oversee and fund the study, subject to approval by its board of trustees, said Jennifer Thuma, ICJI chief counsel. The law calls for the state Department of Health to conduct it, but the two agencies are working on a memorandum of understanding, she said.

“We are excited to help with the study,” Thuma said. “Because the legislation was just signed, we are looking at it and figuring out how to go forward.”

Part of what ICJI does is support criminal justice initiatives through research, data gathering and statistics. “We think it is an important subject,” Thuma said, and once data is gathered, “We’re in a position to try to attack the problems.”

Hale said she is hopeful that the study will involve John Parrish-Sprowl, co-director of the Global Health Communications Center at IUPUI, who has expertise in conducting such a study. She is working with Parrish-Sprowl to develop a proposal to present to ICJI.

Jonathan Plucker, who previously was director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, said there is enough national data to indicate “we may have a really big problem in Indiana.”

Centers for Disease Control statistics from 2010 show Indiana ranks second-worst in the nation when it comes to high school girls saying they’d been forced to have sex.

While national surveys differ, Indiana consistently ranks as one of the worst when it comes to sexual violence against women. “That tells us there is a problem. The question is what is the real scope of the problem — that’s what we don’t know,” said Plucker, now a professor at the University of Connecticut. “We need more fine grain data. That helps us figure out how we solve this.”

According to Plucker, “Given the enormity of what we think Indiana is facing, it makes sense to do a careful study of just Indiana, so policy makers, educators and social service workers can get a sense of exactly what the issue is.”

An Indiana study is money well spent, he said, and he believes the problems are solvable.

Aimee Janssen-Robinson, an assistant dean of students for student advocacy at Indiana State University, coordinates the university’s sexual violence prevention programs.

“I think it’s great we have a legislator who is saying yes, we need to study this. The only way we can appropriately work to address and prevent it is if we really understand the problem,” Janssen-Robinson said. “I hope it will lead to greater and stronger prevention efforts and funding for prevention.”

She noted that President Obama recently formed the White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault, which focuses on the problem at the college level.

Raeanna Moore, a Vigo County deputy prosecutor who deals with sex crimes, also believes the study is a good thing and that crimes such as rape tend to be under-reported.

Victims feel shame and fear no one will believe them, she said.

Many of the cases she encounters involving teen-agers tend to be the crime of sexual misconduct with a minor, “where a minor admits they volunteered to have sex with the older person. It is not forced. It would be more of what you would call statutory rape,” as opposed to forced, nonconsensual sex.

The crime of rape can be difficult to prove in court because the perpetrator will say it was consensual sex, she said. It can becomes one person’s word against the other’s.

Child molesting “is a very serious problem,” Moore said, and she believes the availability and prevalence of child pornography online is having “a huge impact.”

She believes that watching child pornography can desensitize those viewers, which makes it easier for them to molest children.

Hale praised State Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis), author of Senate Bill 227, as well as State Rep. Jud McMillin (R-Brookville) for their help in getting her amendment into the legislation, which expands Indiana’s Lifeline Law.

The Lifeline law provides legal protection for anyone under 21 who calls 911 to report an alcohol-related medical emergency, including sexual assault and drug overdose.

“I can’t think of a more urgent issue than protecting children from sexual predators or crimes of sexual violence,” Hale said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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