Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline's focus on sex and teenagers is missing the point. Although a federal judge in Wichita ruled this week that doctors, nurses, counselors, teachers and others can use their discretion when reporting sexual encounters by youths younger than 16, Kline says he is likely to appeal that ruling and press his case to force reporting of all such encounters.
Kline contends that state law requires every sexual encounter involving a youngster under 16 to be reported, whether it's a suspected rape or incest case, or a consensual encounter between two teenagers.
In 1982, the Kansas Legislature passed the law requiring suspected cases of child sexual injury or abuse to be reported to the state's Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. For the next 20 years, until Kline issued his own opinion on the matter in 2003, no one construed that to mean that every sexual contact involving a child under 16 should be reported.
Now, the federal judge has confirmed the earlier interpretation of the law, striking down Kline's opinion. The attorney general certainly is within his rights to pursue an appeal, but is it a good use of state resources? If he believes his interpretation accurately reflects the wishes of legislators and the rest of the state, perhaps he should ask the Legislature to clarify the law.
We suspect that legislators and Kansans aren't in favor of reporting every sexual encounter by young teenagers to law enforcement officials. Teachers, nurses, doctors and counselors are trained professionals able to assess a youngster's mental state. They are only able to do their jobs if they are able to openly discuss certain issues with the children they serve. What impact would it have on such communications if youngsters knew that every discussion of a sexual encounter would land on a prosecutor's desk? In many cases, professionals said, requiring any sexual contact to be reported to law enforcement authorities would prevent youngsters from seeking needed counseling and medical care.
Kline apparently thinks he and other law enforcement personnel are more capable than medical and counseling professionals to judge whether a child has been victimized in a way that warrants a criminal investigation. He dismissed the concerns of the reporting opponents as a "mammoth fear campaign."
Kline added that reporting will help law enforcement officials uncover instances in which a teenager is being abused but lies about it. Would a frightened teenager be more likely to make such an admission to a police officer than to a doctor or trusted counselor?
Kline seems to think he's unique when he says, "I do not shy away from saying that child rapists ought to be in prison and people who know about it should report it to police." No one is arguing that point. The Wichita judge and the plaintiffs in the case agree on the need to report suspected incest, sexual abuse or any sexual activity involving a child younger than 12. Mandatory reporting of those cases is appropriate.
The only issue is the reporting of consensual sex between teenagers. Professionals in Kansas, as they can in most other states, should be able to use some discretion in deciding whether to report such incidents or allow the teens and their families to work through those issues in private.
Perhaps the attorney general is right that even consensual sexual activity by teens is "inherently injurious." But, if that is true, those cases will be best handled by counseling and health care professionals trained to deal with those issues, not by police and criminal prosecutors.