HARTFORD – In Connecticut, it’s not necessarily a crime to be creepy.
But when it comes to adults using the internet to entice children into sexualized behavior, a group of lawmakers thinks it should be.
Online sexual predators have become very adept at working around current abuse laws on the books, the lawmakers say, and two proposals to address the issue were aired Monday at a public hearing of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
“Having supervised sex-offender units for almost 20 years, many of these people know exactly what lines not to cross and we’ve left that line a little bit too wide open,” said Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield, a committee member and career state probation officer who helped write one of the proposed bills. “Hopefully, we can move forward and tighten up the constraints.”
The proposals contained in two separate bills would make it a felony for an adult over age 21 to commit a variety of acts that now don’t meet that standard, and broaden the law to include victims under 18, who are targeted the most by adult predators.
State resident Roo Powell, a mother of three who founded the Safe from Online Sex Abuse organization and hosts the “Undercover Underage” cable show in which she poses as a minor online, testified that child predators have become much more sophisticated in how they go about “grooming” their victims in order to avoid overtly criminal acts and possible arrest.
“A lot of times these perpetrators understand where that line is drawn,” she said. “When I communicated as a 12-year-old it was not considered criminal for someone to ask my 12-year-old decoy for photos of her feet or bare chest for the purposes of sexual gratification. We’ve been told it’s not a crime to be creepy.”
But such on-the-edge acts can often lead to those photos being distributed by the offender, or to even worse abuse online or in some cases in person, Powell said.
“Today’s kids are experiencing an entirely different landscape of what abuse can be like,” she said. “A child doesn’t have to be in the same town or state or room as a predator in order to be abused. And in a lot of cases they can be sexually abused without it being considered criminal.”
Another proposed provision would directly target incidents of grooming that are not sexual abuse per-se but are often precursors to it, such as an “act of persuasion, coercion, inducement or enticement” including “flattery or mentoring of a minor, gift giving to a minor or providing assistance to or befriending of a minor or the minor’s family.”
“These children are being targeted and they are being led into a false friendship,” said committee member Rep. Mary Welander, D-Orange, who said she consulted with Powell and law enforcement officials in crafting the bill. “By the time they may recognize that something’s going on they are perhaps at a point where they feel they can’t come forward and trust an adult.”
Welander said that while those grooming techniques can be as seemingly-innocuous as a regular online “check-in,” or asking a teenager if they have ever been a model or an actor, they can also extend to much younger children.
“These types of online approaches are not age-specific,” she said. “There have also been cases where children’s coloring books and chat rooms are being used as targeting for very young children.”
One of a few speakers who testified against the proposals was Amber Vlangas, executive director of the Restorative Action Alliance, a group with chapters in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey that seeks to prevent sexual abuse but opposes “ineffective approaches that our criminal legal system utilizes to address sexual harm such as public registries.”
She testified that the proposals represent a “counterproductive strategy” that is redundant with existing state and federal laws.
“While it’s intended to prevent harmful actions between adults and minors, the language could really have chilling effects on normal family relationships,” she said. “It could be weaponized against teachers and parents during a divorce or by anybody with a vendetta. We don’t feel that expanding the criminal code is a good strategy. This is what gave rise to mass incarceration.”
Welander, however, said the proposals are a needed tool to address a growing form of abuse that is often hard for parents or others to identify.
“It’s no longer just the stereotype of the stranger in the van that we have to worry about,” she said. “It is the stranger across the state or the country who sends your child a message when they’re sitting right next to you.”
The committee will vote at a later date whether to recommend the proposals be considered by the full General Assembly, which will adjourn the current legislative session on May 9.
Photo: Roo Powell, founder of Safe from Online Sex Abuse and host of “Undercover Underage”