The Florida Senate took an important step today in protecting Florida’s children by unanimously passing SB 1644, a bill relating to human trafficking. Their counterparts in the House of Representatives unanimously passed companion bill HB 1325 last week, meaning the legislation will now to go Governor Rick Scott’s desk to be signed into law.
Throughout the 2013 legislative session, sexual abuse survivor and activist Lauren Book and Florida’s state attorneys have been advocating for the passage of the two bills, specifically supporting a provision that would make out-of-court statements from older child victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking a stronger tool in trials against their alleged abusers. This “hearsay exception” has only been available to children with a physical, mental, emotional or developmental age of 11 or less, but SB 1644 extends this age to 16.
“Sexual abuse and human trafficking are incredibly traumatizing to child victims. When we put these kids on the stand in a crowded courtroom to testify in front of their alleged abuser, children often become scared or embarrassed and fail to give the most detailed, compelling testimony,” Book explains. “The hearsay exception allows transcripts or videos from earlier interviews to be admitted as evidence in some cases, because the interviews were conducted by trained child protective professionals in a safe, non-threatening environment shortly after the abuse was disclosed. This can only strengthen victims’ testimonies.”
The “hearsay exception” provision is intended to give prosecutors additional tools to get sex offenders and traffickers off the streets. Attorneys from the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association believe that revising the state’s current law to be more inclusive of older child victims would help prosecutors pursue more cases and obtain more convictions against sexual predators.
State attorneys have determined that this legislation does not infringe on a defendant’s right to a fair trial because defense attorneys are still allowed to conduct depositions and because judges must grant “hearsay exceptions” on a case-by-case basis.
Last week, Book – a leading national advocate and founder of Lauren’s Kids – completed a 1,500-mile journey from Key West to Tallahassee to bring awareness and education to the issue of child sexual abuse. Along the way, she was joined by state attorneys in judicial circuits across the state to advocate for the passage of legislation to extend the “hearsay exception” as an option to older child victims.
Book also is seeking to expand the state’s existing kindergarten abuse prevention curriculum to include grades one through five, incorporating such topics as bullying and Internet safety, and is supporting the Governor’s recommendation for a $2.5 million appropriation to reduce the sometimes months-long wait for services at Florida’s rape crisis centers. Both of these appropriations are contained in the Legislature’s budget conference report, which will be voted on for final passage later this week.
Lauren’s Kids is a non-profit organization that works to prevent abuse and help survivors heal. The organization, which has offices in Aventura, Florida and Tallahassee, Florida, was started by Lauren Book, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who endured abuse at the hands of her nanny for six years. Her organization offers a 24-hour crisis hotline, elementary school prevention curriculum, an annual 1,500-mile awareness walk, legislative advocacy and speaking engagements. For more information, visit laurenskids.org