Md. looks to rape laws to cut teen birth rates

Fears about care, girls' attitudes hinder enforcement

February 05, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Tare Evans was only 12 when she started going out with her first real boyfriend -- a boyfriend old enough to vote.

He was 18 and, in her young mind, "a man," who would introduce her to the world. Turn him in for statutory rape? The Baltimore girl wouldn't have dreamed of telling her mother -- much less the police -- they were having sex.

"Honestly, I figured a young boy wouldn't know much," said Evans, now 18 and a mother of two by a different man. "This is what I wanted to do. At least I thought it was what I wanted to do."

Laws against statutory rape -- the catch phrase for the illegal relationships such as Evans' that form between young girls and older men -- have long been seen as legal tools without an edge.

But states such as Maryland, spurred by federal welfare reform legislation that requires them to take a new look at statutory rape, are starting to view the laws more seriously as weapons against the cycle of teen-age pregnancy and welfare dependency.

As they do it, they're having to face the problem of girls such as Evans who aren't particularly interested in helping prosecute their boyfriends. And they must surmount the calls of critics who say aggressively enforcing the laws will bring more harm than good -- scaring reluctant girls away from places that can help them with contraceptive advice, counseling and prenatal care.

The stakes are high. Though the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is at its lowest point in two decades, more than a million teen-agers get pregnant every year. In Maryland, the rate of births by teen-agers fell from 54.3 per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 in 1991 to 43.9 per 1,000 girls of those ages in 1997, the most recent year for which state rankings have been compiled.

Rosetta Stith, director of the Laurence G. Paquin School for Expectant and Parenting Adolescents, where Tare Evans is a senior, has seen the older -- sometimes much older -- men who father the babies of some of her students.

She has tried to get some of the girls to press charges against the older fathers of their children. She has invited prosecutors in to describe the girls' rights. And she cannot remember one time in her 20 years at the school that a father was prosecuted -- unless the girl believed he had abused her.

"Their fear is, `You're going to lock him up and I'll never see him again,' " Stith said.

Sometimes, those attitudes begin alarmingly early.

"I was willing to have sex. I wanted to," said one 12-year-old girl whose mother contacted police after the girl ran away from her Northeast Baltimore home in May and had sex with several older teen-agers. The youths' cases were sent to Juvenile Court, where they were found to have committed sex offenses.

"The police said it was statutory rape, but it wasn't," the girl told a psychologist, according to a written report. "I think it means when a young person and an old person, a little girl and a man, he rapes her. That's statutory rape. You can't say it is statutory rape on me, because I wanted to."

The Sun does not name people who are alleged to have been sexually abused.

Maryland officials will be looking at states such as California, which has established special prosecution units in virtually every county, generating thousands of convictions. In Connecticut, a smaller effort is under way to target high rates of teen pregnancy in Hartford and Bridgeport.

In a recent Maryland survey, nearly a third of the babies born to girls 14 and under were fathered by men over the age of 17 -- relationships that qualify for prosecution under state law, said Patti Flowers-Coulson, director of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy.

Statistics on prosecutions of statutory rape cases are harder to come by.

In Maryland, 16 is the age of consent. For girls or boys who are younger, the crime is covered by several laws and penalties, depending on the ages of the participants. Cases of forcible rape are covered by some of the same laws and are often mixed with the statistics prosecutors keep.

But girls, counselors, prosecutors and parents all agree: There are scores of cases the legal system doesn't know about.

Michelle Oberman, a law professor at DePaul University who has studied the effects of enforcing statutory rape laws, says that perhaps things should stay that way. Young girls are reluctant to get contraceptive advice and prenatal care from officials, she said. If they are expected to turn in their boyfriends, they'll turn further away from authority figures instead.

"My fear is that we'll end up punishing the teen mothers themselves, by dragging them perhaps unwillingly into the public eye," Oberman said. "You give them an incentive to avoid the health care system."

Along with the reluctance of victims to help, prosecutors must deal with the squeamishness of some juries and judges who shy away from punishing a man when a young girl looks older than she is or seems to have behaved provocatively.

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