April 13, 2007 in Idaho

Father leads fight for abuse laws

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Paul Steed’s sons are adults now, but as youngsters at a Boy Scout camp in eastern Idaho, they reported a camp official who was molesting boys.

No one believed them at first. But former Camp Little Lemhi program director Brad Stowell would later admit molesting as many as 24 boys over nine years, from 1988 to 1997, and despite warnings, the Scouts kept hiring him back.

“Victims come forward when they’re ready – that’s a reality,” Steed told an Idaho Senate committee last month.

The panel heeded Steed’s words and passed House Bill 125, legislation to extend the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits over child abuse. The same Senate committee also passed HB 124, another bill backed by Steed, to extend the statute of limitations from one year to four for prosecuting the failure to report child abuse or neglect. Both bills easily passed both houses of the Legislature, and last month, Gov. Butch Otter signed them into law.

Steed said his family’s experience was “just the catalyst – the real problem is statewide.”

The two bills he backed this year were a follow-up to an even bigger change he and supporters successfully pushed through last year: Removing the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions of child molesters.

The changes in law won’t affect his own family’s case, he said. “What’s done is done.” But he said they could keep similar situations from developing in Idaho in the future.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, signed on to co-sponsor both of Steed’s bills this year. “I could not stand up in front of anybody and speak to this issue the way he did, with as much compassion and as much concern for not just his children, but anybody’s children,” Clark said.

Clark said he’s proud of the changes Idaho has made in its laws. “We fixed it,” he said.

Susan Hazelton, executive director of the Family Advocate Program in Boise, said people tend to assume that most sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by strangers, but it’s not.

“The vast majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by people who know the victim and who know the family,” she said. “In most cases it’s very traumatizing for the child, because this is a friend – this is a friend of the family, this is somebody that everybody knows and loves.”

Because of that, she said, “It takes a while for a child to get over the feelings of shame, of guilt, and feel strong enough to report or to allege sexual abuse.”

Last year’s bill eliminated a long-standing law that gave victims just five years after turning 18 to report an abuser. Steed said that after publicity about the Scout camp case, he began hearing from people who were molested as children, “and by the time they got ready to do something about it, they were older than 23 years old.” By then, it was too late. But in many cases, the victims knew the abusers were still out there, possibly still abusing children.

“What we’ve done is allowed any victim, at any time, in our state to come forward when they’re ready and file criminal charges against a pedophile,” Steed said. “Removing the criminal statute of limitations is a huge step forward.”

This year’s extension of the civil statute of limitations changes a law that previously set that limit at five years after the victim turns 18. That was an issue last year in Coeur d’Alene, when two women filed a lawsuit against their father, saying he’d repeatedly molested them as children in the late 1970s and had admitted the abuse in 2003. The women sought damages, but the suit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out more than 20 years earlier.

HB 125 gives victims the ability to file a civil suit within five years after the now-grown victim “discovers or reasonably should have discovered” the abuse and its relationship to injury the victim suffered. The measure also allows such lawsuits against the molester’s employer.

Steed said at least 28 states have adopted similar “discovery” laws.

“The only way you can keep an organization under control is with civil law – you can’t throw an organization in jail,” Steed said. “They’ll protect our children a lot better if they know that some day in the future, that could come back on them.”

HB 124 extends the statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions for failure to report abuse, abandonment or neglect from the current one year to four years. “A one-year statute of limitations on reporting doesn’t save anybody,” Steed said.

In the Scout camp case, the Scouting council never told the parents of the 24 boys about the abuse, Steed said. “Nobody knew a thing about it – they kept it all quiet,” he said.

Hazelton said, “I am very much in favor of every citizen understanding their responsibility to report suspected abuse or neglect.” Young children who are abused have no one to speak for them until something terrible happens. “Generally they’re taken to an emergency room or a neighbor notices something,” she said. “People should report. … It isn’t up to you as a citizen to decide whether abuse is going on, it’s up to you to report and turn it over to the hands of people who are more experienced.”

Reporting could have stopped the Scout camp case before so many victims were harmed, she said. “There needs to be something to hold people accountable for keeping somebody employed for nine years. … The more people are aware of who is actually harming our children, the easier it will be for the next person who discloses, whether they disclose right away or whether they need the full length of time as allowed by law.”

One other bill on child abuse also passed the Idaho Legislature this year. But this one, HB 174a, increased by five times a civil penalty for knowingly making a false report of child abuse. That amount went from $500 to $2,500. Though some lawmakers questioned the need for the bill, proposed by Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, they passed it and Otter signed it into law.

Hazelton said, “Children very rarely lie about abuse. I really wonder what the purpose of that kind of legislation is. … I think there are other things to worry about.”


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