Plight of 'Cindy Garcia' shows society must deal with men who prey on girls

February 06, 1996|By Susan Reimer

When Houston officials launched a frantic search for a child named Cindy Garcia, believed to be 10 years old and eight months pregnant, the nation was horrified. More so when the girl's mother said she had been running away from home since the age of 8 to have sex with her 22-year-old boyfriend.

When the child and her boyfriend were found and the facts were clarified -- she is 14, not 10, and they had been living as husband and wife in a modest Houston bungalow decorated and stocked with baby things -- this horrific tale appeared to lose some of its edge.

And when Adella Quintana (her real name) and Pedro Sotelo told authorities they had planned to return to Mexico and marry, where her age -- and the difference between their ages -- was a norm, it seemed a signal that we must throw a blanket over our repulsion out of respect for cultural differences.

News reports in USA Today and on NBC's "Dateline" suggested that what we had here was nothing more than a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. In his country, "young love is the blood of life," Sotelo told USA Today.

But Sotelo was jailed on charges of sexual assault, and that is exactly what should have happened.

Any adult male who has sex with a girl under the age of consent is committing statutory rape, and I don't care what kind of a happy, little love cottage they've set up or what cultural heritage they may call upon.

What has been lost in the current debate about teen-age pregnancy is the role of adult men in all of this. We seem to be laboring under the naive notion that teen-age girls get pregnant after going too far with their high-school classmates.

But a national study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, supported by studies in individual states and cities, found that more than half of the fathers of babies born to mothers between the ages of 15 and 17 are 20 years of age or older. The study also found that the younger the mother, the greater the age difference between her and the father. Twenty percent of the fathers were six or more years older.

"It seems to be common in political debate to frame issues involving teen pregnancies around teens themselves," said David Landry, senior research associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute. "This survey does make it clear that older adult men are involved."

What we have here is adult males who prey on young girls.

There is no question of consent. The legal age of consent in many states is 16. The psychological age of consent can be much older. And where there is such a difference in age and life experience, there is also pressure. And where there is pressure, there is no consent.

These men do not belong in the social service system. They belong in the criminal justice system.

And yet, a 1993 study by the American Bar Association's Center for Children and the Law reported that though most states have refined the definition of, and toughened penalties for, statutory rape, the offenders are rarely prosecuted and are jailed at a rate far less than other sexual offenders.

Too often, the parents don't realize that they have legal recourse, the girls won't cooperate and the juries won't convict.

"I don't think it is a matter of the law not being aggressive enough," said Sharon A.H. May, deputy state's attorney in Maryland and former division chief of the sex offense unit.

"Fourth-degree sex offense [maximum penalty: one year in jail] was set up to assuage the parent who finds the teen daughter out dealing with an older guy. They didn't want to put him away forever. The message was to leave the 14- or 15-year-old alone.

"The problem we find more and more often is," Ms. May said, "that if you take this case to trial, you deal with a societal attitude that does not find this to be horrendous behavior. Especially if the victim appears to be sophisticated, streetwise.

"She's 14 or 15, but she comes on like she's 17. Juries don't want to put the whole burden on the male.

"So we will try to take a plea, to get the guilty finding, knowing that the jury is going to cut him loose anyway."

Who are these guys?

The Guttmacher study does not paint a clear statistical picture. But anecdotal evidence collected by Kathleen Sylvester, vice president for domestic policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, suggests that "these are 20- or 30-something guys who haven't finished school, who aren't in the labor force, who have no way of achieving status except by making babies and controlling women.

"These are the men who hang out on street corners. They have nothing to offer women their own age, so they prey on the young ones."

Worse, these men do not simply disappear after the baby is born, which would be devastation enough. They often return once a month to harass the young women and collect a portion of the welfare check they helped generate by impregnating her, Ms. Sylvester said.

In California, which has the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the country, Gov. Pete Wilson has pledged funds to prosecute and jail these men. There is concern, however, that such measures may require the people and agencies pledged to help these girls to harass them into revealing the age and identity of their partners.

Ms. Sylvester and the Progressive Policy Institute are embarking this month on a 16-month study with the ABA's Center for Children and the Law that may find a path through this thicket.

These girls are not miniature women. Whatever makeup they wear, whatever pose they strike, they are still children. And they require our protection.

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