WINCHESTER — Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, said she will introduce legislation to combat child sexual abuse when the 2019 General Assembly legislative session begins Wednesday.
During a press conference in Leesburg on Friday, Gooditis said she will introduce four bills that would:
• expand the definition of sexual abuse,
• require the clergy to report suspected abuse,
• retain records of complaints about child sexual abuse for a longer period of time,
• enforce a harsher penalty for those who commit domestic violence in the presence of a minor.
Gooditis said her brother, at the age of 11, was raped multiple times by the leader of a children’s activity. Her brother later attempted suicide multiple times, and suffered from PTSD and alcoholism. He was found dead in March 2017, shortly after she announced her candidacy for the House of Delegates. Gooditis hopes to protect other children from a similar fate.
“My grief and loss have created an energy in me,” Gooditis said. “I couldn’t help my brother. I couldn’t fix it for him. If I can do anything to save that one child from being abused right now ... then I will do it.”
House Bill 1716 would expand the definition of sexual abuse for children under the age of 13. The current statutory definition defines abuse as touching “intimate parts.” The new definition of sexual abuse would include the intentional touching of any part of a victim’s body either on the skin or the material covering the victim’s body. Prosecutors will still have to prove the intent to sexually molest, arouse or gratify the victim.
“The first bill here would redefine sexual abuse so that we would be able to catch sexual predators at an earlier point before more damage has been done,” Gooditis said. “This to me is really vital. Why do we wait until the child has been spirit destroyed before we can arrest and prosecute these people?”
Gooditis said she was a victim of sexual abuse multiple times when she was younger.
“Men felt free to grab me,” she said. “The difference between my brother and me is he was a lot sweeter than I. He didn’t fight. He froze. Which, sadly, is very typical.”
Her second bill, HB 1721, would require ministers, priests, rabbits, imams and duly accredited practitioners of any religious organization to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Exemptions will be made in situations where it is required by the doctrine of the religious organization or denomination to kept in a confidential manner or would be subject to 8.01-400 or 19.2-271.3 of the state code if offered as evidence in court.
Gooditis said during the conference that she would also consider adding computer technicians to the list of people required to report suspected child abuse, as they would be among the most likely to stumble upon child pornography or other forms of online child abuse while fixing computers.
The third bill, HB 1810, would extend the amount of time the Department of Social Services should retain records of reports and investigations of child abuse before purging them.
“If there is an accusation of sexual abuse for a child, at the moment if there is an investigation and nothing is found, the record is purged in a year,” Gooditis said. “This would change it to three years. Because let’s face it, we know most child predators are compulsive and this is something they would do over and over again. So if we can hang onto those records a little bit longer, it would make it easier for us to catch someone on a repeated offense.”
HB 1808 would make assault and battery in the presence of a minor guilty of a class one misdemeanor for a first offense and a class 6 felony for a second or subsequent offense. The bill also provides that any person who commits a felony act of violence while in the physical presence of a minor and knowing or having reason to know that the minor may see or hear such assault and battery, be guilty of a class 5 felony.
“Domestic violence is a horrible thing in any case, but domestic violence in front of children damages those children even more,” Gooditis said. “If we can make that a harsher penalty, then hopefully we can discourage that from occurring in front of children and making those children’s lives even more difficult.”
During Friday’s press conference, Gooditis was joined by several government officials and advocates for children.
“Over one in 10 children nationally experience sexual abuse before turning 18,” said Ian Danielsen, an assistant professor of social work at Longwood University. “Those are conservative estimates. Up to 90 percent of the kids, the research tells us, don’t tell until they reach adulthood. So we are talking about a serious epidemic.”
Gooditis anticipates bipartisan support for most of her proposed legislation, but has concerns about HB 1716’s chances. She said some critics might believe that expanding the definition of sexual abuse would endanger casual affection toward children. She disagrees and feels it will be a useful tool in catching predators early, before any serious damage is done.
“I’d like to think that our court system and our law enforcement and prosecutors are intelligent enough to know the difference between grandma kissing her 8-year-old granddaughter lightly on the mouth and a kiss on the mouth that is intended to groom with sexual intention,” Gooditis said.
Phyllis Randall, chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, said a majority of people in prison had suffered abuse themselves. As a result, she said there is generational systematic abuse that needs to be stopped.
“When you can stop that abuse with one person, you stop that next generation from being abused also,” Randall said.