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LGBTQ+ advocates worried about vague language in Ohio’s new ‘grooming’ bill

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LGBTQ+ advocates worried about vague language in Ohio’s new ‘grooming’ bill

Dec 04, 2023 | 4:45 am ET
By Morgan Trau
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LGBTQ+ advocates worried about vague language in Ohio’s new ‘grooming’ bill
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State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, during the Ohio House session, May 24, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

A new bill in the Ohio House aiming to punish sexual grooming may have vague enough language that it harms LGBTQ+ youth, some advocates worry.

Community is essential for many LGBTQ+ teens. Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC) aims to provide that by holding educational programming and discussion groups.

“They’re looking for those mentorship-type relationships that all of us need,” said Erin Upchurch, KYC executive director.

But now, Upchurch fears a new bill in the Ohio House may target her organization.

“The whole idea of it being so vague — it’s so dangerous and irresponsible,” Upchurch said.

Republican state Reps. Bill Seitz (Cincinnati) and Cindy Abrams (Harrison) introduced House Bill 322. It creates the offense of grooming, prohibiting an adult from engaging in a “pattern of conduct” with a minor that would cause a “reasonable adult” to believe that the adult has a “purpose to entice, coerce, solicit, or prepare the minor to engage in “sexual activity.”

Under this bill, Upchurch believes some conservatives may wrongfully accuse KYC of grooming because they talk about sexuality and gender, have a bowl of condoms or, most importantly, provide sexual education.

“The more information that you can give them to keep themselves safe, the better,” she said. “There’s people who really want them to be equipped to do the right things with their bodies, to feel informed.”

While she understands the concerns, Rebecca Surendorff with Ohioans for Child Protection says this bill isn’t about that. She helped the lawmakers with this bill and said it’s about stopping actual groomers and holding them accountable.

“An adult texting a minor about sex acts, if they are not soliciting those sex acts from the minor, in Ohio — you don’t have a crime,” Surendorff said.

Grooming allows the minor to feel more comfortable with the perpetrator, she added.

“We are looking for people that have again and again; it is a pattern of conduct,” she said. “If we can actually label this as a crime, when people call child protective services with it, then that will change how it’s handled.”

The offense would also be seen on background checks, meaning a coach who was fired for grooming behaviors could be prevented from getting a job at another school.

“We would just like to mitigate the harm and sometimes the victim isn’t ready to disclose sexual assault, but they have proof and they may be in a place to discuss the grooming,” she said.

While Upchurch understands the premise of the bill, she fears this will be used politically.

“They’re wanting to remove protective factors or access to protective factors for our young people,” Upchurch said.

Seitz addressed her concerns.

“I think people are seeing ghosts where none exist,” the lawmaker said. “This bill has nothing to do with sex education to LGBTQ youth.”

The Republican continues that the bill is “not just talking about things that could theoretically be used to prepare a minor to engage in sexual activity.”

“It also has to be conduct that would cause a reasonable adult person to believe that the person is communicating with the minor with the purpose to entice, coerce, solicit, or prepare the minor to engage in sexual activity with the person in question or a third party,” he said.

This doesn’t change Upchurch’s perspective. Because there is no definition of a “reasonable person,” anti-LGBTQ+ groups could claim that informing teens how sex works — thus “preparing them for sex”— could be weaponized.

The word groomer has been misappropriated by people who are against the queer community, she said. She fears that opening it up for conversations without being as clear as possible can cause a ripple effect on LGBTQ+ youth.

“I think if this bill were to pass as it is written, one thing that would be challenging is the lack of clarity and the confusion,” she said. “It puts the focus on people having to double check what are we doing.”

Being able to provide answers for teens is how they will remain safe, since they will go looking for answers anyway, she said.

“We trust our young people, they trust us and we build those relationships and part of that is if they’re asking a question, we’re gonna give them the answer,” she added. “We’re gonna give them the facts or we’re gonna tell them where they can find it.”

Also in the legislation

There are only Republicans cosponsoring this bill. When WEWS/OCJ asked many Democrats why they didn’t sign onto it, all said they were waiting to get more details.

H.B. 322 revises current law regarding childhood sex abuse offenders. It doubles the statute of limitations for prosecutors to pursue criminal cases against mandatory reporters of child abuse who failed in their duty to make the mandatory report. It changes from two to four years.

It also addresses the Child Sex Abuse Registry. To be clear, the Child Sex Abuse Registry is a civil registry created in 2006. The original legislation allowed prosecutors to file a civil action against any child abuser to obtain a declaratory judgment that the person was an abuser and deserves to be placed on a child abuse registry.

To simplify a complicated situation, it was ruled unconstitutional since it prescribed criminal penalties to a civil offense.

If an individual involved in a civil case fails to comply with registration, notice and verification requirements, there is a penalty of up to $2,500, instead of a fifth-degree felony, which was the original punishment.

The bill repeals the prohibition on a civil registrant for living within 1,000 feet of any school premises.

When it comes to grooming, punishments would be a first or second-degree misdemeanor, except under specified circumstances in which the offense is a felony.

There are higher penalties if the victim was in a relationship of trust with the offender, similar to sexual battery, if the victim was less than 13 years old, if the offender has prior convictions for sexually-oriented offenses or child-victim-oriented offenses, or if the offender supplied alcohol or drugs to the victim.

 

This article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.