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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Taking on an acute social ill

At House summit, a plethora of gov’t organizations & nonprofits discuss sexual abuse of children on the island

The summit included a significant number of public and nonprofit organizations, all gathering together to discuss violence, and especially sexual violence, against children. (Photo by Richard Gutiérrez/The San Juan Daily Star)

By Richard Gutiérrez

Child abuse is a tough subject to discuss, and when it comes to sexual abuse against children, the conversation becomes even more difficult. Even though these subjects can make people uncomfortable, it is more than necessary for the government and other organizations to come together and talk about them in order to develop effective policies -- and finding sustainable funding -- for preventing child abuse in the first place, intervening in a timely way with active cases, providing maximum support to victims, and implementing effective supervision of people who have been convicted of sexual crimes after their release from incarceration.

On Oct. 31, two bills were filed in the House of Representatives related to child sexual abuse, which are: House Bills (HB) 1932 and 1933. While HB 1932 is directed toward supervised release of people who have convicted heinous crimes related to sexual violence, incest, lewd acts, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, child pornography, seduction, and persecution of minors, HB 1933 is directed toward transforming centers that provide rehabilitation for minors who have suffered sexual abuse into a new entity.

The two bills seem to be different, but they are both directed toward combating violence against minors. The bills have yet to be approved and have not gone through the process of public hearings yet either; however, as a first step in considering both bills, the island House of Representatives hosted the Summit Against Child Violence on Thursday at the Capitol.

The summit included a significant number of public and nonprofit organizations, all gathering together to discuss violence against children and especially sexual violence against children. The Puerto Rico Police Bureau, Peace Coordinator for Women, Justice Health Center, ADFAN, Family Department, Carlos Albizu University, Rape Victim Assistance Center, Center for Integrated Services for Minor Victims of Sexual Abuse, El Sendero de la Cruz, Department of Justice, Institute of Forensic Sciences, Institute of Psychotraumatology of Puerto Rico, Dominican Women’s Center, Peace Coalition for Childhood, Residential Treatment Clinic for Minors, Ricky Martin Foundation, and University of Puerto Rico (UPR), among others, were all in attendance.

The summit was an opportunity for different organizations to express themselves on the issue of violence against children in general and also to talk about the new House bills and how they felt about them.

Ex-governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá told the STAR that “the subject that is being discussed here is a subject that my wife Piti, when she was alive and was part of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico, legislated and advocated for.”

“What we are discussing here basically gives continuity to what she was advocating for,” he said. “She presented legislation which was, in my personal opinion, the most important legislation related to sexual crimes against minors.”

Meanwhile, UPR President Dr. Luis A. Ferrao Delgado was also part of the event and stressed the importance of the university’s presence there.

“We have all of the intention to give our part in this situation,” Ferrao told the STAR. “We have a responsibility to the island. We are developing professionals in the area of social work that eventually might have to encounter cases related to child violence, as well as people who are studying psychology who will also probably happen across individuals who are facing these situations. Therefore, the UPR has to be present in these types of events; we have to commit our resources. We have many students doing internships in the Family Department. We are saying ‘here’ once again.”

“This is a subject that people often hide from; it is a taboo subject,” the UPR president added. “The worst part is that a lot of the time this happens within the family context. It is an uncomfortable subject, but one that needs to be discussed. It is even more difficult when incest situations are accounted for in the matter. It is not just that we want to be a part of this summit, we have to be a part of it. It’s our responsibility.”

According to the Police Bureau, during 2022 there were 1,572 sexual crimes, incidents that in 74% of the cases were committed against minors under 17 years of age, an alarming figure that does not include thousands of victims who, out of fear, language limitations or distrust of the justice system, remain in silence. The Institute for Prevention and Control of Violence of the Rape Victims Assistance Center published the “Puerto Rico Violence Report” corresponding to the year 2022 and identified that the main victims of this criminal behavior were females between zero and 17 years old. Specifically, the most vulnerable age groups were 11 to 15, six to 10 and 16 to 17 years old, respectively.

However, these demographic data only reflect a statistical trend over groups that face a greater degree of vulnerability, given that experts in the issue recognize that no child, regardless of sex, race, color, nationality or status immigration, is exempt from having his privacy and personal integrity violated through acts of criminal sexual abuse.

What did the summit accomplish? House Speaker Rafael Hernández Montañez said it was a step in the right direction. “There is a sensitive public policy, which is around 25 years old, and whose goal is to protect those who suffer violence against minors,” he said. “The situation was made a lot better because of these centers that help and protect these people, but it is obvious that there is still a lot of work in terms of their resources and their expansion.”

“Today our goal was to help the causes of agencies that already have programs operating but do not have the resources to be effective,” the House speaker added. “Not everything will be done from the perspective of approving a law, but from the perspective of giving these agencies the resources so that they can achieve what they desire, from the perspective of the current public policy.”

The public policy Hernández Montañez was talking about is HB 338 from Dec. 31, 1998, known as Children’s Rights Bill.

“I am feeling optimistic that both bills will be approved, perhaps not in this ordinary session, but at the beginning of the next one,” the House speaker added.

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