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Victims of statutory rape still low priority with county

If county commissioners don't give a rip about statutory rape -- if they're so determined to call it a "cultural phenomenon" and brush it under the rug -- then who is going to protect young girls from men who could be their fathers?

The last time the Mecklenburg County Community Health and Safety Committee, which is made up of members of the County Commission, put this topic on their agenda, they learned that dozens of statutory rape cases in which young girls got pregnant had slipped through the cracks. Earlier this year, Commissioner Bill James succeeded in forcing county health officials to comb county birth certificates in search of cases in which young girls listed the father as men too old to have legally fathered their baby. In May, the committee learned that 66 of those girls' cases were unknown to either the police or the county prosecutor's office.

Because the district attorney's office wasn't able to consider prosecuting that large of a volume of new cases, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Captain Tim Danchess ended up investigating 19 of the 66 cases the DA agreed to take on.

None of this appears to have fazed health committee chairman Norman Mitchell. After learning about the cases, he had this to say about spending any more of the committee's time on statutory rape: "I don't want to waste the community's time on one item when we have a lot of items before us."

Health officials at the meeting assured commissioners that "it takes two to tango" and "these girls aren't stupid."

The meeting was so much like something out of the 19th century that Guardian ad Litem Suzanne Garvey, who spent years working with the Mecklenburg Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, had to take a few minutes afterward to calm down in the parking lot.

Vague promises were made to look into the problem at the end of the meeting, but since then, James said, the issue has hit a brick wall.

In North Carolina, if she's 13 to 15 and you're more than six years older than her, having sex with her is a class B felony. If she's younger than 13, having sex with her is illegal, period. At least that's the law.

What frightens me about this is that in all likelihood, the problem is much bigger than the cases the county turned up. A sampling by Creative Loafing of the birth certificates of young mothers during the last five years showed that more often than not, girls between the ages of 12 and 15 don't list a father at all. About a third of the girls who get pregnant have abortions.

The bottom line, as we've reported before, is that commissioners don't want to discuss statutory rape because it appears that more than half of the statutory rape victims in the county are Hispanic and a significant percentage are African-American.

Mitchell and his pals aren't the only ones who want to brush this under the rug. They may not be aware that they have a strong group of allies.

The discussion at a group therapy session for sex offenders that I recently attended sounded remarkably like the one the county health and safety committee had in May. Although most of the sex offenders in the group expressed remorse, more than one felt it was "unfair" that he had spent time in jail for having sex with a young girl. He said it was common in his community here in Charlotte -- or in other ethnic or racial communities in Charlotte -- for girls younger than 16 and men as old as 40 to have "relationships."

I must admit they have a point, albeit a twisted one. Why should a few do jail time for a crime many are so brazenly getting away with and that nobody seems to care about anyway?

James may be giving up on these girls, but I'm not. I've lived and worked in some rough neighborhoods in this city, and I'm tired of seeing girls just past puberty with their bellies poking out, their lives essentially ruined. Worse yet is seeing what happens a few years down the road, when the 22-year-old mom is still struggling to raise her seven-year-old child while simultaneously battling her alcohol/heroin/whatever addiction.

Capt. Tim Danchess said many of these cases slip through the cracks because while hospitals and health care providers are reporting some of the cases to police, they aren't reporting all of them.

UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government Associate Professor Jill Moore said part of the problem is a lack of clarity in state law. Moore says it's unclear whether the law that requires health care providers to alert police to the "grave illness and bodily harm" that may have resulted from criminal acts applies to the pregnancy of a 13-year-old girl. The county could lobby the legislature to clarify the law or study making changes to the reporting requirements here, she said.

Unfortunately, that would take an actual effort, which at the moment is more than the people who are supposed to be protecting these girls are willing to make.

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