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Scott signs Penn State scandal-inspired bill into law

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law four measures – including a proposal inspired by the Penn State child molestation scandal – today after being blasted by victim advocates for vetoing $1.5 million for rape crisis centers around the state earlier this month.

At the top of the list of the bills Scott signed today is the “Protection of Vulnerable Persons” measure (HB 1355) making Florida the first state in the nation to impose the hefty fine for each incident of child abuse higher education institutions – both public and private – fail to report.

Child advocates said the hefty fines and new mandatory reporting requirements make Florida’s law the strongest in the country.

“Florida is the leader in protecting children and families from sexual violence. It’s a truly wonderful day,” said Lauren Book, a child sexual abuse survivor and the founder of “Lauren’s Kids” advocacy group. Lauren Book and her father Ron Book, a prominent Capitol lobbyist, pushed for the bill.

The new law, which goes into effect on Oct. 1, imposes a $1 million-per-incident fine on college and university administrators who knowingly withhold information about child sex abuse on campus or at institution-sponsored events.

The new Florida law is one of dozens considered or passed in other states in the wake of child molestation scandals at Penn State University, Syracuse University and The Citadel. The Penn State scandal came to light in November and resulted in the ouster of the football team’s beloved, veteran coach Joe Paterno, who died earlier this year.

Last year, former Penn State defensive coordinator Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky was arrested last year on charges that he sexually abused at least eight boys over a 15-year period. After Sandusky’s arrest, the university fired long-time coach Joe Paterno, who died last month, and president Graham Spanier. Athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president stepped down from their positions and are accused of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.

Like Florida’s, proposals in other states add coaches, athletic directors or university officials to the list of “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse or neglect. In the past month, such bills have been signed in Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, with several other states expected to follow suit.

The Florida law also puts college and university law enforcement agencies on the hook if they fail to turn over suspected abuse reports to prosecutors.

Scott angered advocates earlier this month when he red-lined $1.5 million for rape crisis centers from the state’s $70 billion budget. Critics called the veto especially egregious because it happened in April, Sexual Violence Awareness Month.

But Scott defended the veto, saying money elsewhere in the budget covered rape crisis centers and domestic abuse victims, and reiterated his support for those programs on Friday in a press release announcing the bill signings. The release noted that the state $70 billion budget includes $6.5 million for rape prevention and sexual assault services and $29 million for domestic violence programs.

“This critical legislation I have signed into law shows the valuable steps Florida has made in protecting the rights of victims,” Scott said in a statement. “April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and this week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and it is an important time to raise attention to promoting victims’ rights and remember those lives affected by violence.”

The child molestation scandal-inspired measure also includes what child sex abuse victim advocates say is a critical change in who must report child sex abuse and why.

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Penn State-inspired abuse reporting measure with $1 million penalty headed to Scott

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

College and university administrators could be fined $1 million per incident for failing to report child abuse that takes place on campus under a bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott

The measure was inspired by the Penn State University child abuse scandal. The Florida “Protection of Vulnerable Persons” measure (HB 1355) would impose a fine of up to $1 million for each time any public or private university or college administration knowingly and willfully fails to report child abuse that occurs on campus. If signed into law by Scott, Florida would become the first state in the country with such a law.

The child molestation scandals inspired Rep. Chris Dorworth to sponsor the measure at the request of influential lobbyist Ron Book, whose daughter Lauren is a child abuse survivor and advocate. Her organization Lauren’s Kids works to prevent childhood sexual abuse.

“The bill ensures that the protection of a child is treated as a greater priority than the reputation of an institution,” Lauren Book said in a press release. “It sets a national standard in affirming that child abuse reporting is everyone’s responsibility.”

Last year, former Penn State defensive coordinator Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky was arrested last year on charges that he sexually abused at least eight boys over a 15-year period. After Sandusky’s arrest, the university fired long-time coach Joe Paterno, who died last month, and president Graham Spanier. Athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president stepped down from their positions and are accused of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.

The bill also makes the Department of Children and Families’ child abuse hotline the sole entity responsible for handling child abuse reports. Now, the hotline is only required to accept reports if caregivers are suspected of sexually abusing the children. DCF officials say they take all calls and refer calls about abuse other than by caregivers to local authorities. The change would require hotline operators to process all abuse complaints.

The House unanimously passed the measure Friday evening with a 117-0 vote. Yesterday, the Senate approved it 35-4. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, was among those voting against it. He said the bill goes too far by requiring anyone to report suspected child abuse because different cultures have different standards of what constitutes abuse and what is considered acceptable discipline of a child.

Dereg debacle nets lobbyist lineup

Saturday, May 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Just two days before the legislative session was supposed to end, the two professions at the center of a deregulation bill started girding up for what ultimately proved to be a sine die train wreck.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association, already represented by Nick Iarossi – a rising star on the Tallahassee lobbying scene – and his associate Chris Schoonover, added seven more prominent lobbyists to its team: Sarah Bascom (already doing PR for the group), Louis Betz, Michael Corcoran, Chris Floyd, Yolanda Jackson, Ron LaFace Jr. and Gerald Wester.

On the opposite side: interior designers, the profession the Florida House wanted to deregulate to the chagrin of thousands of interior designers and universities with specialty graduate programs. Tallahassee powerhouse Ron Book and his entourage began representing the Interior Designs Association Foundation back in February. But on May 5, the foundation also enlisted the aid of some of the Capitol’s most influential lobbyists: former RPOF lobbyist Rich Heffley, Brecht Heuchan, Guy Spearman, Sean Pittman and Missy Timmins.

In the end, those latest to the game won out.

In a stunning rebuke to GOP leadership, the Senate killed the dereg bill – keeping regulation of interior designers – late Friday afternoon on what was supposed to be the session’s last day, setting off the vendetta-laden denouement to what might have otherwise been a collegial hanky drop but devolved into public remonstrations from House Speaker Dean Cannon and a bleary-eyed Senate President Mike Haridopolos in the wee hours of the morning Saturday.

Removal of statute of limitations on its way to governor

Monday, April 26th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The House and Senate unanimously did away with the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children between the ages of 12 and 15 today, sending the bill to Gov. Charlie Crist for signature.

Palm Beach Gardens attorney Michael Dolce, who was repeatedly raped by his Maryland neighbor at the age of seven, has tried for six years to get the measure passed but the Catholic Church has thwarted his efforts.

Senate bill sponsor Dave Aronberg introduced Dolce, who watched from the public gallery and received a thank-you from Sen. Mike Fasano, who was acting as president of the chamber.

“Michael, on behalf of the Florida Senate, thank you for your good work, my friend, thank you,” Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said.

Florida’s current laws gave children between the ages of 12 and 16 three years to file criminal charges although studies show that it is often 15 years before victims go public with their accusations.

“Overwhelming. Very, very grateful that we finally said to these monsters time will never protect them. The law will protect our kids first,” said Dolce, who launched a citizen’s initiative called “Protect Our Kids First” to amend the constitution to remove the statute of limitations because the legislature failed to change the law.

Also looking on were influential lobbyist Ron Book and his daugher, Lauren Book-Lim, whose nanny sexually molested her from the age of 11.

“This is a huge deal. It’s just incredible. We’re so excited,” Book-Lim said.

Up to 70 percent of child molesters walk free because of the time restriction that keeps their victims from pressing charges, said Aronberg.

“This bill is a long time coming. Because there is no statute of limitations for the pain of victims. There is no statute of limitations for the shame and humiliation,” said Aronberg, D-Greenacres.

The Senate approved the bill with 34-0 vote; the House passed it earlier today by a 114-0 vote.

Crist has indicated that he would sign the bill into law.

Catholic Church wants redemption, not restitution, for churches involved with child sex molesters

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Catholic Church is ramping up efforts to water down a measure backed by victims of childhood sexual abuse that would do away with the statute of limitations on sex crimes on children between the ages of 12 and 16.

The Florida Catholic Conference wants Senate President Jeff Atwater to help modify the bill now that it’s ready to hit the Senate floor despite the conference’s lobbying to limit the number of years a victim has to press charges against a molester.

The Catholic conference is okay with doing away with the current statute of limitations for individuals who commit the crimes but wants a time limit on criminal or civil charges against institutions like churches involved in the abuse.

The reason? Money.

“The open-ended nature of these proposals creates tremendous uncertainty for any organization’s potential liability for alleged acts of negligence,” Florida Catholic Conference executive director Mike McCarron wrote in a letterto Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, yesterday.

“We fully support the added protection for children that will come from these bills. It is also our hope that an amendment will be adopted to reasonably limit what we believe is inequitable institutional liability for private employers.”

The House is expected to pass its version of the bill (SB 870, HB 525) tomorrow.

The church has fought off efforts to do away with the time restrictions for the past six years. Lawmakers have seven working days left before the session ends to pass the bill this year.

McCarron said he’s tried to amend the bill to exclude institutions or to set a time limit of up to 30 years.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI promised today that the Roman Catholic Church would take official action on a growing scandal over sexual abuse by priests.

In an unusual move, Benedict spoke openly about his meeting with abuse victims during a trip to Malta and said he promised them the church would take action.

“I shared their suffering and emotionally prayed with them,” the pope said during his weekly audience at The Vatican, describing his visit on Sunday with eight Maltese men who claim to have been molested by priests as youths.

The church will investigate the allegations, bring justice to those responsible for the abuse and “implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future,” the Vatican said in a statement.

Last week, the Vatican issued guidelines instructing bishops to report abuse cases to civil authorities where required by local laws.
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UPDATE: Negron children’s services deal sour pill for some

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Sen. Joe Negron successfully attached the children’s services agreement to a bill dealing with early childhood education this afternoon but the Senate didn’t take a final vote on the bill (SB 2014) yet.

The state’s children’s services councils agreed to a deal with Sen. Joe Negron this year because they would likely have fared worse in the future, a lobbyist for the special taxing districts said.

Negron’s deal would require that voters reauthorize the state’s eight children’s services councils that have taxing authority periodically, beginning in 2014 with Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties.

The councils voted to accept the deal yesterday but Martin and St. Lucie refused to vote on the plan that would require voter reauthorization every 12 years unless the referendum specified another time frame or no future vote at all.

Negron, already a Senate leader after less than a year in office, will be even more powerful after his reelection in the fall, said the state council association’s lobbyist Ron Book.

Negron believes that all boards, councils or other groups that have the ability to tax citizens should be elected.

The Stuart Republican wants the change because he’s unhappy with the Martin council’s spending on a new headquarters.

Children’s advocates say the councils are an easy target because they have less clout than taxing authorities like water management districts.

“I think they’re right. But that doesn’t mean that he as a policy maker and an elected member of the Florida Senate shouldn’t move legislation that he thinks is right,” Book said.

He said the councils weren’t forced into the deal but they would likely do worse next year.

“There is less incentive for Sen. Negron to negotiate a compromise next year or the year after than there was this year,” Book said. “Sen. Negron becomes an even more significant leader in the Florida Senate after his reelection and I think that that is an issue they had to consider. Will you do better to negotiate a compromise today than later? They were in a better position to negotiate something that they could live with today than they would be next year.”

Negron, who plans to amend a bill with the compromise today on the Senate floor, said he never threatened the councils and that they are working with him to ensure that the House signs off on the agreement.
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End to statute of limitations for child sex offender cases advances

Monday, April 19th, 2010 by Dara Kam

An effort to do away with the statute of limitations on child sex molestation cases for crimes against children between the ages of 12 and 16 is headed to the Senate floor after some tense negotiations this morning.

The Catholic Church and criminal defense lawyers oppose the measure and tried at the last minute to extend the time limits, now three years after the child reaches age 21.

Michael Dolce, a Royal Palm Beach lawyer who was sexually abused by a neighbor in his home state of Maryland when he was seven years old, has tried for six years to get the measure passed.

This year Dolce has powerful lobbyist Ron Book on his side. Book’s daughter Lauren was sexually molested by her nanny. Lauren Book-Lim is walking across the state to raise awareness and support for the issue and is expected to reach the Capitol tomorrow.

Sen. Alex Villalobos, a former prosecutor and Catholic, asked a series of questions showing his opposition to the measure because of the difficulty those accused of the crimes would have defending themselves after decades pass.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Committee Chairman Victor Crist recessed the committee to allow both sides to negotiate on setting a number of years instead of doing away with the time limits completely, sensing bill (SB 870) sponsor Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, may not have had the votes to pass it.

A heated discussion took place in the anteroom outside the committee.

“I don’t want a number. We’re past the time for numbers,” an irate Book told the bill’s opponents, saying he reached out to them two weeks ago but has had no response. “Two weeks have now passed. Nobody’s called me. No smoke signals. No carrier pigeons. No e-mails. Nothing.”

Dolce gave a hurried testimony as the clock ticked down on the meeting’s end.

“I simply ask for your support today. No child should have to walk in these shoes,” he concluded.

With less than two minutes left before the meeting’s end, the committee passed the bill 3-1, with Villalobos, R-Miami, voting against it.

The House version is also ready to be voted on by the full chamber.

Senate promotes lobbyist daughter’s campaign to raise awareness for childhood sex abuse victims

Thursday, April 8th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Senate honored Lauren Book-Lim this morning, the daughter of powerful lobbyist Ron Book and a childhood sexual abuse survivor.

Book-Lim is trying to raise awareness about child molestation on a 500-mile walk from the Aventura home where her sexual molestation at the hands of her nanny began at age 10 and lasted until she was 17 to the Florida Capitol.

The Senate played a video of the 25-year-old Book-Lim talking about her non-profit organizaiton, Lauren’s Kids, as the usually brash Book, joined by his family, tearfully looked on from the public gallery.

The Books got kudos from Senate President Jeff Atwater and some of his colleagues, including Larcenia Bullard, a Miami Democrat who shared in the past that she was sexually molested by her father.

“I stand as one who has had that experience and I stand for others who have been afraid to speak out. I pray for Lauren that she will really complete her jouyrney because her journey has just begun. What she’s doing by speaking out, she’s helping so many others come to a point where they too will feel better about themselves,” Bullard said.

Since learning about his daughter’s abuse, Book has lobbied for harsher penalties for child molesters and has spoken strongly in favor of an effort to do away with the statute of limitations on child sex abusers, a proposal the Catholic Church has opposed for years and continues to fight.

Read related story: Sexual abuse survivor, activist starts 500-mile trek

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