Obenshain proposes child safety measures

By Joe Beck

The Republican candidate for Virginia attorney general proposed Tuesday that more prosecutors should be hired to help local authorities crack down on sexual offenses committed against children around the state.

The proposal was part of a six-point package rolled out by State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, that also includes tougher penalties for adults in a supervisory or custodial role who abuse children.

“This really does represent one of the most significant priorities in terms of keeping our communities safe,” Obenshain said in a conference call. “It’s hard to overlook children. They’re indeed among those we have the greatest obligation to step up and protect.

“Whether it’s human trafficking online, or online recruitment of children for child pornography or sexual exploitation, we’ve got to step up and make sure the laws are adequate.”

A spokesman for State Sen. Mark Herring, D-Leesburg, reacted to the proposals Wednesday by accusing Obenshain of “hiding his record from the voters” on issues of child protection. Herring is Obenshain’s opponent in the general election.

Herring communications director Matt Wojtkun stated in an email that Obenshain was one of three legislators in 2011 to vote against extending the period in which a victim of child sexual abuse may file a lawsuit against an abuser. The legislation increased the period from two to 20 years.

Wojtkun also cited several other votes that he called examples of Obenshain placing “his own ideology ahead of keeping children safe.”

“Mark Herring has an actual record of keeping kids safe, including cracking down on designer drugs and bath salts,” Wojtkun said.

The additional assistant attorneys general proposed by Obenshain would follow the model of special gang prosecutors in the department who are assigned to zero in on cases in specific regions of the state, Obenshain said.

He said the new prosecutors would be added to three computer-based crime specialists already on staff who travel the state to handle child exploitation cases.

Obenshain also called for reclassifying crimes involving sexual exploitation of children by those acting as custodians or supervisors. Current law classifies such offenses as a class 6 felony if the child is 15 to 17 years old and a class 5 felony if the victim is younger than 15.

Obenshain said he will support legislation that would make those crimes a class 5 felony for those committed against a child 15 to 17 and a class 4 felony for those younger than 15.

A class 6 felony carries a prison term of one to five years; a class 5 felony is one to 10 years; and a class 4 felony is two to 10 years. Other, lighter sentencing options may also be imposed, depending on the circumstances.

Obenshain’s other proposals include:

  • Supporting legislation that would create a separate felony offense for using the Internet to recruit people for prostitution, the manufacturing of child pornography or promoting human trafficking.
  • Requiring child protective services agencies to interview children in homes where authorities have found them to be at risk of sexual abuse or exploitation.
  • Backing legislation that would allow prior convictions for sex offenses against children to be admissible in pending cases.
  • Urging legislators to develop bills creating a presumption against bond for those accused of possessing child pornography.
  • More help for sexual assault response teams in providing services to sexually abused children and raising awareness of victim services.
  • Promoting more use of service dogs already used in a few counties to comfort children removed from abusive situations.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com