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Despite criticism, child sex abuse prevention bill moves forward

Published March 6, 2014 11:06 am

With help • Elizabeth Smart, Miss Utah & other high-profile victims help.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A bill to allow elementary schools to instruct parents and kids on preventing child-sexual abuse advanced Thursday to the Senate for final consideration.

Approval came after several high-profile victims of abuse — including kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart, Miss Utah Ciera Pekarcik, and pianist Deondra Brown of the 5 Browns musical ensemble — lent support.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to send HB286 to the full Senate. It previously passed the House 73-0.

The conservative Utah Eagle Forum had pushed to amend the bill to require parents to opt in and give permission for their children to attend the program. The bill instead requires notification, and allows parents to opt out if they choose.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, pushed the amendment sought by the Eagle Forum. "We have to be careful not to violate the very principles that this bill is about. And that is the ability to say no, and to be able to speak up and not have to endure something we don't want," he said.

But Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, made a successful substitute motion to pass the bill intact. "Opt-in implies there is danger in the instruction. And there is danger in the instruction. There's danger to the perpetrator. There's danger to the people who are doing horrific things to our kids."

Several victims of abuse testified that programs that didn't include opt-in provisions likely saved them.

The ex-wife of a man who was imprisoned for sexually abusing the couple's daughter testified that her daughter told friends about the abuse because of a program at her school. She said if her ex-husband had known about the program, he surely would have kept his children from attending. The Tribune is not publishing the mother's name to avoid identifying the abused daughter.

But Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said, "Good parents should not lose their right to know ahead of time that this is going to be taught," and argued the bill might allow that.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said programs are age-appropriate and focus mostly on helping children know it is not OK for someone to hurt them, and that they should tell others if that happens.

She quoted Elizabeth Smart, who watched the debate, saying, "We are taught to look both ways when crossing the street. We are taught to stop, drop and roll when there is a fire. We need to teach children how to say 'No, this is wrong and I am uncomfortable.' "

Pekarcik, the reigning Miss Utah, said the bill "is not about sex. It is about safety."

Romero said some critics claim the programs could confuse kids about the difference between appropriate affection and abuse. But Romero said because only one of every 10 kids now reports abuse, "they are already confused."

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he would like to see specific curricula before the full Senate debates the bill.