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It's NOT "A Cultural Thing"

County Ignores Statutory Rape in Hispanic Community

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In North Carolina, the law on statutory rape is pretty simple. If she's 13 to 15 and you're more than six years older than her, having sex with her is a class B felony. If she's 13 to 15 and you're more than four years older than her, having sex with her is a Class C felony. If she's younger than 13, having sex with her is illegal, period. There are no subsections exempting those who are newly arrived in this country, those from cultures where sex with a person half your age is a-okay, or cases where her parents think the whole thing is just swell. But you wouldn't know this if you listened to an amazing debate taking place on the Mecklenburg County Community Health and Safety Committee over whether the county should actively intervene to stop what many, including interim Health Director Wynn Mabry, see as a "cultural phenomenon."

Whatever you wish to call it, statutory rape is ruining young girls' lives.

According to birth certificate data, 183 underage girls in Mecklenburg County have listed men too old to legally father their babies as the child's father since 2000. These girls range in age from 10 years old — yes, 10 — to 16, including many who are 12, 13 and 14. Somehow the system failed these girls so badly that they actually managed to carry their babies to term, show up at a hospital and give birth. More chilling still is what happens when you look at annual figures and compare the number of underage girls who list much older men as the father on their child's birth certificate and the total number of men charged with statutory rape.

Take 2003 for instance. That year, 44 young girls in the county listed men way too old to have legally fathered their children as the father on their child's birth certificates. Another 30 between the ages of 10 and 14 had abortions.

Yet only 21 individuals total were charged that year with statutory rape in Mecklenburg County, according to statistics provided to Creative Loafing by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.

The pattern has been the same since 2000, the earliest year we looked at. Each year in this county, the number of young girls listing a man too old to legally father her child was two to three times higher than the total number of men actually charged with the crime of statutory rape. When you consider that cases in which the girl gets pregnant and actually lists the baby's father on the birth certificate are likely a small percentage of the statutory rapes that occur here, you can only draw one conclusion: a whole lot of men are getting away with this crime.

When we read the statistics to Assistant District Attorney Barry Cook, he said his office doesn't see that many cases each year in which the victim got pregnant. And though defendants in cases like these are usually charged with several offenses, a statutory rape charge is almost always included, Cook said. Bottom line: these numbers don't add up.

In recent months, county commissioners on the Community Health and Safety committee have been jousting over whether to even discuss this issue, and it's clear that the majority didn't want to. Republican Bill James eventually won that fight, getting the county to reluctantly produce stats showing that some girls are slipping through the cracks in the system. This wasn't a fight that James started. For years, the Mecklenburg Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, which was funded by the county, used part of its grant to scour county birth certificates, producing an annual report that documented statutory rape in the county.

One of the things MCAP found most alarming was a 2001 finding that of the 61 percent of young teen mothers who identified a father on her child's birth certificate, 71 percent of the men were 20 and older.

Every year the women's advocates who ran MCAP shoved these figures under commissioners' noses, to no avail. Their efforts weren't exactly appreciated: they were defunded in 2003, after which the county stopped directly amassing statutory rape data from birth certificates. But the ladies from MCAP haven't given up. Suzanne Garvey, who once worked with the group, still sits through committee meetings on this issue, hoping someone will do something to stop the cycle of predation and underage pregnancy.

Now there's a new twist. The figures the county crunched for the committee revealed that over half the girls who listed older men as their baby's father were Hispanic. It's a problem that cities across the country with large immigrant populations are dealing with a lot better than we are. When I talked to people — from the Health Department to local child advocacy groups to the DA's office — I was told the same shocking thing again and again: It's cultural. Many Hispanic parents, they say, want their 14-year-old to hook up with someone in his 20s who has a job and can support her. It should be up to the parents to decide whether there are any charges. And then there's my personal favorite: I might understand this better if I spent enough time traveling in Hispanic countries.

That came from Mabry, the interim county health director. "Obviously in the Hispanic culture, in any culture, the parents of the daughter would have the first concern about the situation and have the legal opportunity to address it," Mabry said. "The fact that that's not happening and that most of the families are coming from another country raises the question, 'Is this a cultural phenomenon? Is this even a legal issue?' If it is consensual and the family is aware of the situation and is counseled on the options, then they have the first right."

Mabry fears that if the county takes aggressive action, including investigating age gap cases from birth certificates, families will simply stop naming the father. The Health Department could scour public health records, or target all cases in which a ridiculously young girl shows up pregnant at a county health facility or a hospital, and hunt down those the law sees as sexual predators. Instead, Mabry says he'd "prefer just to educate and use the prevention tool rather than a hammer."

Nalini Jones, District Administrator of the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem Program, sees what is happening to these girls a bit differently. "In my line of work, we call that physical and sexual abuse," she said.

Which is, no doubt, exactly what we'd call it if a 25-year-old Hispanic male impregnated a 14-year-old Caucasian girl, particularly if she was from an upscale South Charlotte neighborhood. But when the victim is Hispanic too, apparently, it's just a "cultural thing."

Problem is, the pretty picture of cultural acceptance by Hispanic parents hoping to make a good marriage for their 14-old-daughter is a bit rosy. Parents aren't always in the picture, says Gabe Klobchar, a social worker at Carolinas Medical Center Northpark, which sees a heavy volume of Hispanic patients. In some cases, young women who are illegal or without means to support themselves hook up with older men for a place to live or food, he said. That, of course, adds a whole new pernicious angle to underage sexual victimization.

The next major battle the commission will fight will be over what if anything to do about the statutory rape data contained in their own files. They could take a hint from Virginia, which started an "Isn't she a little young?" campaign after health officials realized that 71 percent of the babies born to 13- and 14-year-olds in the state were fathered under felonious circumstances because of the age of the father. Hispanic sexual victims' advocates didn't wait for the state to repeat the campaign in the Hispanic community, rushing to put out their own fliers in Spanish warning men they could go to jail or be deported for having sex with younger women. These efforts were backed up by a crackdown by the attorney general's office. For them, it wasn't about culture, but about saving young women's lives from being wrecked. Surely our local officials can do as much.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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