Globe and Mail

Ottawa takes aim at child abuse

Considers raising age of consent, adding new laws on child homicide and neglect

BRIAN LAGHI
Parliamentary Bureau
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 27, 1999

Ottawa -- Ottawa is considering major changes to protect children from criminal abuse, including raising the age of consent from 14 and adding a new offence, child homicide, to the Criminal Code.

The suggestions are part of a wide-ranging consultation paper that will be released Monday and discussed at a national meeting of ministers of justice that starts Thursday.

Other measures being discussed include new Criminal Code offences for severe, physical child abuse and extreme child neglect. Failing to report suspected crimes against children also could become an offence.

"There will always be some people who seek out vulnerable children to satisfy their own dangerous impulses, frustrations or need to dominate, in spite of the law and the disapproval of the vast majority of Canadian society," says the paper, prepared by the federal Justice Department. "It is essential that we continually re-examine the situation, to search for ways to improve the justice system to give our children and young people the protection they need and deserve."

To better protect children from sexual exploitation, the paper suggests that the government consider raising the age of consent from 14 to 16 or 18.

"There is concern that the present general age of consent, which has been in the Criminal Code for more than 100 years, is too low to provide effective protection from sexual exploitation by adults," the paper says.

"Immature, inexperienced youngsters are unlikely to have adequate knowledge of the implications and consequences of sexual activity. The relatively low age may allow pimps, for instance, to seduce young girls without fear of prosecution, with the intention of luring them into prostitution."

Fourteen was made the age of consent partly to avoid criminalizing consensual sexual activity between young people who are of the same age or nearly the same age. At one time, the Criminal Code did carry an offence prohibiting sexual intercourse with a 14- or 15-year-old, but prosecutors had difficulty proving such cases in a court of law.

The paper notes that the age of consent in the United States and Australia is generally 16. There have been suggestions of raising the Canadian age to 16 or 18.

"Raising the age would provide children and young people with an additional measure of protection until they reach a higher level of maturity and understanding about the issues involved in engaging in sexual activity," the paper says. "It would be more consistent with the treatment of children in other activities, such as leaving school, driving and even getting married."

Federal bureaucrats also want to know whether the Criminal Code should be clarified so a minor's consent is not seen as a mitigating factor in sentencing. The document cites a recent case in which an offender in his 20s had his sentence cut because a court said the girl, who was under 14, had agreed to the act.

The department says a recent spate of alarming incidents has prompted concern about the safety of children. Adults are using various means to approach and have sex with children and teens, leading to physical attacks and death.

"Some children have also been the victims of severe, long-lasting and often permanent physical and emotional harms and injuries."

The paper suggests that Ottawa could look at a new Criminal Code offence of child homicide that would combine the offences of murder and manslaughter. The document quotes a recommendation from a coroner's inquest that assumes that such an offence would result in more convictions and longer sentences than manslaughter.

Murder and manslaughter are both forms of homicide, but murder requires a specific intent to kill, while manslaughter does not.

"Whether or not a new child-specific homicide offence would result in more convictions and lengthier sentences, it could focus attention on society's condemnation of abusive conduct or neglect that results in the death of a child," the paper says.

Although providing protection services to children is the responsibility of the provinces, the job of setting punishment and offences belongs to Ottawa. The federal government says it wants to hear opinions on the paper from all Canadians by March 31, 2000.

Among other measures, Ottawa is asking for advice whether a new Criminal Code offence is needed in cases of severe physical abuse of a child and extreme cases of child neglect.

The document concedes that the code already includes offences such as assault but says a new provision could increase penalties for offenders. On the issue of neglect, the department says concern has been expressed over whether the criminal law is adequate to deal with neglect that seriously harms children. An offence that deals specifically with criminal child neglect would send a message that such an offence is as serious as physical assault.

The paper makes a number of other suggestions for discussion. Among them are:

Whether there is a need for a separate offence prohibiting emotional or psychological abuse of a child.

Whether aggravating factors should be considered in sentencing, such as repeated physical abuse, the age of the child or the fact that the offender was the child's caretaker at the time of the offence.

Whether support for child witnesses should be increased, as in guidelines on appropriate police interviewing methods.

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