Let’s Make Laws That Protect Our Children From Sexual Abuse

Katie Petersen Girls

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Three years ago I made a promise to a child I had never met, whose darling, innocent face I couldn’t pick out of a line up.  I don’t even know if I ever said my promise out loud, it might have just been in my head, which is ironic, because most the stuff in my head makes it to my mouth before my brain can intervene.  Our paths crossed in some sort of serendipitous way, the stars aligned, and with help, I’m keeping my promise.

I have been a police officer for over 15 years and for the last 10 years I’ve investigated sexual crimes against children.  During investigations involving these types of situations, I realized we only had a misdemeanor charge that would clearly cover these actions, and the appropriate felony was much more difficult to prove, if not impossible in certain circumstances.  

With a misdemeanor, a person only has one year to report the crime before the statute of limitations expires.  The statute of limitations is extended for felonies.  What’s the problem you ask?  Why can’t we just get this handled in that first year?  The problem is that children most often do not immediately disclose sexual abuse, and given the damage this type of behavior can do to a child, a misdemeanor simply isn’t adequate accountability.  

Pornography or masturbating in front of a child can be used to groom a child for sexual abuse by lowering the child’s inhibitions, attempting to induce or persuade a child to engage in sexual activity, and normalizing sexualized behaviors.  One woman I know told me about her own childhood sexual abuse, “I have so many memories of someone masturbating in front of me or silently showing me pornography and not saying a peep.  Totally violating and creepy…and almost more paralyzing than being physically held down.”  This isn’t a pitch against pornography, I’m just advocating that kids shouldn’t be shown pornography, and you should keep your hands out of your pants around the littles.    

This is where I enlisted the help of others to fix this loophole in the law. I consulted with attorneys, law enforcement, and my fellow do-gooders, and we came up with a solution.  In the dark of night, under a full moon, Kimberly Dudik, a Montana Legislator and attorney,  drafted Montana House Bill 247 which would revise the law related to sexual abuse of children.  

The night before I testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee, I called a mother of a child who had been victimized in this manner.  It was her child I had made the promise to.  I told her what had transpired over the last three years, and what was going to happen the next day.   We talked for an hour.  This change wouldn’t help her child, but her child’s story is that catalyst for change that will help others.  If there is a silver lining on their cloud, this was it.  

I got in my car and cried my way home.  I don’t know if it was the relief of checking something off my to-do list after three years of staring at it, the connection with another parent, or maybe it was just my imaginary mid-winter allergies, but regardless the cause, there were tears.

When I walked into the Montana State Capitol building the next morning, it was bustling with suits, snow boots, and name tags.  I found Kimberly amongst the organized chaos, she told me who else was supporting us, and I was humbled.  People I had never met thought my idea and my words were important.  They may not even know the backstory, yet they were here to support the future.  Kimberly spoke so knowledgeably and eloquently about something that had become so near and dear to me.  She said all the right things.  She gathered all the right people.  We answered all the questions.  They are currently casting votes, and it’s passing 100-0.   

Fast forward a week.

There is a wonderful therapist in town who I see for tune-ups.  I mean really, who could investigate sexual crimes against children for the last decade without a good therapist, right?  I was telling him this story, and then I stopped.  He froze.  He knew the story.  I realized at the same time he did, that he is the person who referred that child to law enforcement.  He knows the child, he knows the issue, he knows the struggle, and he is hearing the resolution.  Those darned tears leaked out of my eyes again.  There is not a therapist in town that could have understood those tears better than he did in that moment.   

Sexual abuse of children happens more often than my brain can conceive.  I tell people all the time that I became a police officer to help people, and if one day, a person I helped looks back and attributes the positive change in their life to something I did, then it makes this career worth it.  Seeing my words in print, in history, changing the future, is certainly going to accomplish this goal even if it’s helping someone I’ll never meet, whose face I couldn’t pick out of a line up.  


About the Author

Katie Petersen

Katie Petersen is a 12-year veteran with the Missoula Police Department specializing in investigating sexual crimes against children and is assigned to the newly formed Sexual Violence Unit. She volunteers with the Parenting Place Child Abuse Prevention Center, is a member of the First Step Children's Advocacy Center Multidisciplinary Team, is part of the Child Protection Team, and has helped form the Missoula Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Team. She can be reached at kpetersen@ci.missoula.mt.us.

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