North Carolina’s Republican leaders say the negative publicity and economic losses brought on by House Bill 2 are justified by the need to protect children from sexual predators. But when they were asked last year to do more to help children who’ve suffered from sexual abuse and to prevent more children from falling prey to it, they showed little interest.
That request came in February 2015 when the North Carolina Coalition for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse delivered the findings of a study requested by the legislature “to identify statewide goals to prevent child sexual abuse.” The 11-member study group included educators, pediatricians and child welfare advocates. It made six recommendations. No legislation resulted.
“I think we had a good group looking at the issue and it just kind of dead-ended from there, which is kind of frustrating,” said Kay Castillo, a member of the study committee and a lobbyist for the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
That lack of action is a jarring contrast to the urgency expressed by Republican lawmakers now. They passed HB2 to block a Charlotte ordinance that gave transgender people the right to use bathrooms that match the gender with which they identify. Republican leaders say allowing that change would expose children to male sexual predators who will be free to enter public bathrooms and molest girls.
Castillo is chagrined to see lawmakers taking a strong stand on something the study group never considered an issue. She said children are mostly abused by people they know, “not people in the bathroom.”
State Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, pushed for the study after hearing from survivors of child sexual abuse “who were extremely concerned about the issue.”
While a variety of agencies address parts of the problem, Robinson was hoping the study would lead to legislation for a comprehensive approach that would improve prevention of child sexual abuse, train teachers and others to recognize signs of it and provide more counseling for victims.
“It hasn’t moved anywhere,” Robinson said, “and that’s the problem. There’s still work to be done.”
The study group called for better training for public school personnel to recognize victims; education for children about healthy relationships; a minimum of $25,000 for every Child Advocacy Center in the state, recurring funding for the NC Child Treatment Program and throwing out “ineffective strategies,” such as an overemphasis on “stranger danger” when “up to 90 percent of incidents are committed by a friend or family member.”
State Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican and a chief house budget writer, said the legislature has boosted funding to promote child welfare at the local level and made improvements in the state’s foster care program. As for preventing child sex abuse specifically, he said, “Clearly we don’t have all the solutions in place. We’ll continue to work on that.”
The legislature did give a one-year boost in funding for local Child Advocacy Centers, but those benefits are overshadowed by other cuts that leave children more vulnerable, especially in a state where one in four children live in poverty. Tight state school funding has forced a reduction in school social workers and nurses who can detect a child who is being abused. And cuts to child care and after-school programs have left more children exposed in unsupervised settings.
The study group’s funding requests are modest, but the payoff could be large by improving lives, reducing crime and lowering the number of children who need help and protection. County child protective services across North Carolina confirmed 1,013 children were sexually abused in 2013, according the group’s report, but child advocates say the actual incidence of such abuse is likely much higher.
The report concluded that “preventing perpetration of child sexual abuse, and providing early intervention and treatment to survivors, is not only an ethical obligation but a fiscal responsibility, as well.”
Despite that appeal for a broader effort to protect and counsel children, the report is gathering dust as Republican leaders sound alarms about preventing “grown men” and “predators” from entering women’s restrooms.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, in a TV ad for his re-election campaign, says, “If keeping men out of women’s showers and bathrooms protects just one child or one woman from being molested or assaulted then it was worth it.”
No, what would be worth it would be saving the legal and economic expense of defending HB2 and instead spending more to support programs that address the problem where it really is, and that’s not in the bathroom.
HB2 legalizes discrimination against transgender people, allows businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation, usurps local authority and closes state courts to workplace discrimination claims. But what may be most offensive about the law is the way it’s being presented as a shield against child sexual abuse. It’s not. Lawmakers were told how to protect children last year. They should act on those recommendations.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com