OP-ED: Standing up for our most vulnerable
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month — a time dedicated to raising awareness of crimes against children and endeavoring to prevent them.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines child abuse as “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect … or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity.” More than the definition, child abuse — in any form — is a heinous crime against the most vulnerable among us.
This month, the U.S. House of Representatives took up and passed (409-2) my Combat Online Predators Act (H.R. 4203). This bipartisan legislation provides increased criminal penalties for those who cyberstalk minors online, as well as enhances local, state and federal law enforcement’s ability to crack down on this online form of crime.
This measure was inspired by the story of a Bucks County family whose teenaged daughter, at the age of just 13, was cyber-stalked by a friend’s father through social media. Despite the stalking being sexual in nature, the then-51-year-old stalker pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor stalking charge and was sentenced to probation and counseling. Three years later, in 2016, the same stalker began making contact again. Hiding behind social media, the predator created a perverted library of over 15,000 posts, detailing his warped vision to marry her and his insistence that no one would ever stop him from being with her. Thankfully, following a sting operation, local police arrested him and sentenced him to between 18 months and seven years in a state prison.
Stories like this, unfortunately, occur too often in this country, and they do not always end with the stalker in custody.
The Office of Women’s Health defines stalking as repeated contact that makes one feel afraid or harassed. Each year, this crime affects an estimated 7.5 million people, including many children. Stalking disproportionally impacts women: stalking victims are 50 percent more likely to be female, and according to the CDC, one in six women has experienced some form of stalking during their lives.
Today, stalking — especially against minors — can be committed online in the form of cyberstalking. Cyberstalking involves the use of the internet, email or other electronic communications (such as social media) to stalk someone. Instances of cyberstalking and internet-related crimes have been rising. While all 50 states have laws designating stalking as a crime, traditional remedies lack the continuity and gravity necessary to fight cyberstalking. The criminal codes among the states respond to cyberstalking in irregular ways — less than a third classify stalking as a felony on the first offense.
A more concerted effort must be made to protect internet users, especially young people, from this expanding crime.
With the House’s overwhelming passage of this common-sense legislation, now is the time for the Senate to act.
Cyber-stalking is a serious crime that needs to be met with stricter penalties and more cooperation among law enforcement agencies. The Combat Online Predators Act is the first step in making the internet a safer environment for all users, especially young Americans. And this step cannot come soon enough.
As the National Center for Victims of Crime stated in its endorsement of the legislation, “In today’s age where children can be stalked both in person and online, we must ensure that our laws provide real justice for our most vulnerable victims.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing stalking or looking for more information and resources on the topic, please visit my website, fitzpatrick.house.gov/stalking.