An Oregon House bill passed earlier this month aimed at discouraging false reporting of child abuse would have a chilling effect on an area of crime that is already under-reported, child abuse experts say.
House Bill 2183 would make it a violation — punishable by a $720 maximum fine — to knowingly make false allegations of child abuse to police or the Department of Human Services.
"The intent is good. But the unintended consequences could be very dangerous for some children," said Marlene Mish, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center.
Proponents of the bill include House Judiciary co-chairman Wayne Kreiger, R-Gold Beach, and Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford.
The bill is designed to discourage adults from using malicious allegations of abuse in bitter divorce or child custody cases, supporters say.
Esquivel did not return phone calls to the Mail Tribune on Wednesday. Rep. Dennis Richardson, D-Central Point, said he did not promote the proposed legislation. But Richardson voted in favor of the bill on May 3, along with all 30 House Republicans and seven Democrats, in part because he has personal knowledge of a case in which a man was falsely accused of child abuse during a divorce, he said.
"This happens more frequently than we would want," Richardson said.
Mish said holding people accountable for false reports is "a good thing." But the bill could have the unintended consequence of keeping children trapped in abusive situations because adults are fearful of making a report that, while true, might not be able to be proven, she said.
"The message we don't want to give is to dissuade people who need to do the right thing and report," she said.
Ashland resident Randy Ellison is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse and board president of Oregon Association of Adult Sexual and Incest Survivors.
Ellison has been meeting with legislators, encouraging them to kill the bill in the House. Now that it has passed in the House, Ellison is hoping the bill will die in the Senate.
"We do not need people worrying about being wrong when deciding to report or not," Ellison said. "We want people to report suspected abuse. If people are in doubt, we want them to err on the side of reporting."
The bill has the support of at least one Oregon senator. According to news reports, Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, testified he was once the victim of a trumped-up claim of child abuse.
Ellison said he had sympathy and empathy for anyone victimized because of a false report of abuse. But statistics show child abuse is the most under-reported crime next to domestic abuse, he said.
"This is a pointless bill that harms the current trend in society of eradicating child abuse and is a slap in the face of every agency that works with child abuse," Ellison said, adding there is already a law on the books that deals with false reporting.
ORS 162.375 states initiating a false report is a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,250 fine and 30 days in jail.
Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston said the proposed law is similar to the current statute, but focuses more on those who initiate false reports to DHS or a mandatory reporter with knowingly false intent.
Huddleston said his office has proceeded against adults for filing false reports under the ORS in only a few cases. Huddleston added he had not seen many cases he thought would be applicable under the proposed law.
Others who testified against the proposed legislation include the Oregon District Attorneys Association, the Oregon Network of Child Abuse Intervention Centers, the Oregon School Employees Association, Children First and the Child Advocacy Section of the Oregon Department of Justice, Ellison said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email email@example.com.