ANNAPOLIS – The case of the 16-year-old from an alcoholic home still makes Montgomery County Police Sgt. Rick Cage angry.
The girl had been attending an after-school mentoring program for disadvantaged youth when she lost her virginity to the program’s director.
Although she hadn’t been the first program girl to be seduced, Cage couldn’t charge the director. The incident had occurred after program hours and away from school.
That loophole, which permits sexual contact between people who hold positions of authority and their minor charges in certain situations, would be closed under a House bill that Delegate Carol Petzold, D-Montgomery, filed this week.
“We think that there are people using their positions of authority to gain sexual favors from people who need to please them,” Petzold said.
“The law doesn’t extend far enough,” said Cage, from the police Pedophile Section. Teachers can’t engage in sexual acts in the classroom, he said. But if they take a kid across the street to a fast food parking lot, it is OK.
“It’s like joining Big Brothers to go out and seduce kids,” he said.
Maryland law allows sexual contact between adults and consenting youth over age 14. Youth over 16 can consent to sexual intercourse with adults. However, in either case, if these youth are related to the adult or under their care, it is illegal.
The situation becomes complicated when those in authority over youth engage in these acts away from the typical settings of their authority.
The loophole was first noticed by law enforcement during a 1993 child sex abuse case against a Montgomery County middle school teacher who had had weekly sexual contact with a 14-year-old student off school grounds. The court dismissed the case since the prosecution failed to prove the child was under the teacher’s temporary care.
In response, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. recommended the General Assembly amend the law.
Petzold introduced a similar bill last year, but it was defeated in committee, 15-6.
That bill singled out school employees to be punished for such offenses, something lawmakers didn’t like, said Delegate Dana Dembrow, D-Montgomery.
“Ordinarily we want to make crimes attached to the act and not the status of the person who committed the act,” he said.
If it is wrong for a teacher to do it, it is wrong for others to do it, Dembrow said. Why should a teacher go to jail, he asked, but not the janitor or PTA worker who does the same thing? If it is wrong, criminal punishment should be extended to all offenders.
Delegate Donald Murphy, R-Baltimore County, agrees. “Nobody thinks anybody should be messing around with a 17-year-old,” Murphy said. But the bill was too specific, he said.
At the same time, delegates worried that broader wording might ensnare innocent consensual relationships, Dembrow said.
Petzold said she hoped the bill’s new wording would help eliminate roadblocks that prevented its passage last year. “School employee” was changed to a person in a position of authority at an educational institution attended by the minor involved.
It is unclear whether the wording will appease lawmakers’ concerns. Nonetheless, it is a problem that needs a remedy, said field experts.
“What is being missed is the issue of a minor being seduced into a relationship beyond his capacity to manage by an adult who is in a position of power from the child’s perspective,” said Dr. Leon Rosenberg, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University.
Regardless of where the sexual contact occurs, the adult involved “remains clothed with the authority of the current or prior teacher-student relationship,” said Deputy Attorney General Donna Hill Staton in her testimony last year.
In the case of the Montgomery girl, the teen didn’t have the wherewithal to counter the man’s advances, Cage said. The man would wait to drop her off last when he took kids home and used the time to sweet-talk her.
The current loophole allows predators to “groom” their victims, Cage explained. Adolescents are in a vulnerable stage where they need acceptance and attention.
“Adults know techniques about what makes a person feel good,” he said.
Kathleen Dunn, Petzold’s aide, said Maryland is one of only four states without some type of statutory or case law to protect youth in such instances. The others are Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina.
The loophole gained attention last year when it prevented prosecutors from proceeding with 11 of 15 child sex-abuse charges against a Carroll County substitute teacher, Kimberly L. Merson. She pleaded guilty to the four remaining charges and admitted to having sexual contact with nine boys during her time at Key High School.