An Indiana bill went into effect last week that could prevent people attempting to groom a child for sexual activity from getting to that point.

Indiana Senate Bill 551, authored by Sens. Mark Messmer (R-Jasper), Michael Young (R-Indianapolis) and Erin Houchin (R-Salem) took effect July 1. It allows, in part, parents or guardians to get a restraining order against a person they believe may be attempting to start sexual contact with a child.

Sexual grooming could start in many different ways, but Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said a common example is online communications between the child and a potential abuser, whether that person is known or not.

"This provides a way for parents to prevent individuals from instant messaging their children [or] contacting them, if they are uncomfortable with the way that interaction is going on," he said.

Mull added that the provision loosens up some of the barriers to protective orders that have been in place over the last several years.

"In years past it used to be easier for citizens to get protective orders against other people who were harassing them or their family," he said. "This bill is a step in the right direction."

Mull said the first thing a parent should do if they believe someone is having inappropriate communications with their child — online or otherwise — is to call the police and get an investigation going to see if a crime has occurred.

But that doesn't mean a no-contact order won't be issued until the investigation is complete. If parents know the suspected person's name, they can go to court and get a restraining order filed more quickly to try to prevent further communication.

That way, "if there was an investigation that was taking some time to conduct, the parents can go ahead and stop the contact," Mull said.

Noelle Russell, deputy director of communications with the Indiana Department of Child Services, said in an email that the organization supports efforts such as the new bill to add protections to children's welfare.

"DCS appreciates any effort to protect Hoosier children, and we realize these efforts must evolve alongside technology," she said.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Child Maltreatment Report published in January, nearly 9 percent of all crimes against children in the country were of a sexual nature.

OTHER PROVISIONS

The bill also adds privacy protection for children. Under the new law, Department of Child Services records cannot be disclosed to any person if there is an ongoing investigation or criminal prosecution involved. Also, rather than having the name or initials of a child victim of a violent crime listed in public documents, they will be denoted anonymously, such as by "Victim 1," and only the court will be provided the key to the identities.

It also allows children under 16 required to testify in any criminal case to be afforded the right to have with them a comfort item or comfort animal.

In sentencing changes, the bill allows for a more severe punishment for those charged with strangulation — the charge can be enhanced to a level 5 felony, which carries one to six years, if the suspect has a prior conviction of the same. Mull said this is important because a person getting multiple strangulation charges may be heading toward something more serious.

"What we see with strangulation is many times people who commit that offense will escalate toward more violent offenses ... homicide or other types of serious offenses," he said.
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