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Agency Was Advised Not to Pursue Underage Sex Cases

Orange County: Legal opinion that has guided social workers since 1994 clashes with policy of D.A.'s office.


SANTA ANA — For the past two years, the Orange County Social Services Agency has been guided by a policy that allows social workers to ignore some sex crimes that prosecutors say should be pursued in court, according to documents released Thursday.

Under a legal opinion prepared for Orange County, social workers have been told they do not need to report their findings of unlawful sexual intercourse between girls 14 to 17 and adult men of any age.

The opinion, written by a county attorney, is in sharp conflict with the position of the Orange County district attorney's office, which says it has intensified its prosecution of such statutory rape cases. Under state law, doctors, nurses, teachers, family counselors and police officers are obliged to report suspected cases of sexual abuse of a minor to county social welfare agencies, which in turn are required by law to bring such cases to the attention of prosecutors.

But because of a change in state law in 1981, the definition of sexual abuse no longer includes statutory rape, according to the county counsel's opinion. As a result of this opinion, Orange County social workers have been told since August 1994 that they can disregard statutory rape cases unless "additional facts indicate the minor is not engaging in voluntary sex, but is the victim of abuse."

The opinion further states that the fact that an underage girl is found to be pregnant or to have a sexually transmitted disease "does not constitute a basis for reasonable suspicion of child abuse."

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Middleton, who heads the office's sexual assault unit, said "it appears there is a loophole in the law" that allows social workers to view statutory rapes differently than prosecutors do.

"To us, unlawful sex with a minor is child abuse," he said.

Larry M. Leaman, director of the Orange County Social Services Agency, said he has asked the county counsel to reexamine its opinion in light of the controversy over recent revelations that his department has assisted some adolescent girls under its protection to get married to adult men who impregnated them.

Gilbert Geis, a visiting professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the agency's policy is bad public policy.

"What if the girl is 15 and the man is 52?" Geis asked. "They ought to look at these cases."

Supervisor William G. Steiner, however, said he supports the county counsel's conclusions.

"With more than 45,000 cases going through the system every year, you have to prioritize," said Steiner, former director of the Orangewood Foundation for abused and neglected children. "I agree that in cases where the minor is 15 years or older and where the sex is consensual, that there should be no response by the social workers."

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