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Revisions clarify law on false claims of child abuse

Local experts played a key role in rewriting a bill introduced by State Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, which originally was viewed with alarm by those who work to protect children.

The bill, recently signed into law and designed to discourage punitive or vindictive reporting of child abuse, underwent significant changes as it made its way to the governor's desk. The changes were necessary to protect children and to assure the public that reporting suspected abuse is not only the right thing to do, it is safe for them to do so, experts say.

"This bill started out as a major disaster and a blow to child victims. But it has been reduced and narrowed to a much less harmful form," said Ashland resident Randy Ellison, an adult survivor of child sexual abuse and board president of Oregon Advocates and Survivors in Service.

House Bill 2183, which was signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber in July, makes 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 state must prove that the intent of the false report is to influence child custody, visitation or child support, Ellison said.

One of the bill's main targets was adults who use malicious allegations of abuse in bitter divorce or child custody cases, said Esquivel.

"People getting divorced can make ugly accusations," Esquivel said. "It happens more often than you might think."

When Esquivel and House Judiciary Co-chairman Wayne Kreiger, R-Gold Beach, initially presented their bill before the House, the proposed fine was $6,250 and the violator faced a misdemeanor criminal charge which could have resulted in jail time.

The changes are a relief to child abuse experts who said Esquivel's bill, as written, would have had a chilling effect on a crime that is already under-reported.

Ellison testified in Salem against the proposed legislation, along with representatives from 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 he remains concerned the new law will be misinterpreted by the public, which could have a quelling effect on everyone from teachers to neighbors to relatives who might suspect child abuse, and be afraid to report due to misunderstandings.

The law does not punish those who might make a false reports based on honest mistakes. Only those that are due to malicious intent, Esquivel said. It was never his intent to limit reporting of actual child abuse, or cause consternation amongst child welfare experts. He also does not oppose the changes that were made to his bill, Esquivel said.

Ellison said holding people accountable for false reports is appropriate. But there was already a law on the books that made it a crime to knowingly make a false report of any crime to the police or other agency. ORS 162.375 states that initiating a false report is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,250 fine and 30 days in jail. Ellison questions the need for a new law that "pulls out that one type of false reporting and makes it a violation," he said.

"They wanted to call attention to it," Ellison said, adding he remains concerned about the potential fallout for mothers trying to protect their children from an abusive father.

"Basically this is a bill designed to protect husbands in divorce cases," Ellison said. "This is a bill written by men for men."

There could be 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, he said.

"If a woman is out and away from an abuser, it may be the first time ever she feels safe to report (her partner committed child abuse)," Ellison said. Esquivel's bill had 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.

People should not be worrying about being wrong when deciding to report or not, Ellison said. People need to report suspected abuse. If people are in doubt, they should err on the side of reporting, he said.

Esquivel said he encourages people to report child abuse.

"You won't get in trouble unless you have malicious intent," Esquivel said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.