HHS/ASPE. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.Background

Statutory Rape: A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements

Executive Summary

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Contents

  1. Background
    1. Criminal Laws
    2. Reporting Requirements
  2. Implications for Program Staff and Policy Makers
  3. Structure of Report

Endnote

In 2003, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contracted with The Lewin Group to explore how three federally funded programs that have contact with adolescents — Title X family planning clinics, Health Resources and Services Administration-supported health centers, and child protective services — address statutory rape within their client populations. The multi-phase, descriptive study will collect information about state laws, federal guidance to programs, and grantees’ and local offices’ practices. The findings will help HHS to determine if additional guidance is needed.

This report is a compilation of state laws and reporting requirements. It provides an overview of state statutory rape laws and reporting requirements, as well as a summary of laws for each state and the District of Columbia. This report is not intended to be a legal document. It is designed to provide useful information to state and federal policymakers who are interested in how state statutes address statutory rape. It also is intended to serve as a resource for HHS grantees.

Background

To understand if statutory rape has occurred and whether it should be reported (and to whom), program staff and policy makers need to be familiar with two sets of laws: criminal and civil codes. The former deals with the legality of sexual activities involving minors, while the latter describes individuals’ reporting responsibilities. In short, there is no “one size fits all” law that guides the identification and reporting of statutory rape. Rather, there is wide variation in state codes. What is a reportable offense in one state may be outside the purview of law enforcement or child protective services in another.

1. Criminal Laws

Criminal laws deal with the legality of sexual acts. Statutory rape laws assume that all sexual activities involving individuals below a certain age are coercive. This is true even if both parties believe their participation is voluntary. Generally, statutory rape laws define the age below which an individual is legally incapable of consenting to sexual activity. To complicate matters, few states use the term “statutory rape” in their criminal codes. More often, a state’s code will address legality of different sexual activities involving minors (e.g., sexual contact versus penetration). Sometimes it is difficult to identify the applicable laws because they are often embedded in the section of the code dealing with other sexual offenses (e.g., sexual assault, forcible rape).

A common misconception about statutory rape is that there is a single age at which an individual can legally consent to sexual activity. In fact, only 12 states have a single age of consent; in these states, this age ranges from 16 to 18 years old. In the remaining states, the age of consent depends on one or more of the following factors: age differences between the partners, the age of the victim, and the age of the defendant. Each is described below.

The following exhibit illustrates how the age of consent interacts with these three elements. The examples are actual state laws.

Age of Consent,
Example State Laws
State Age of
Consent
Minimum Age:
Victim
Age
Differential
Minimum Age:
Defendant
A 18 -- -- --
B 16 -- 4 --
C 16 13 4 --
D 16 16 -- 18

State A has a single age of consent. In this state, a male or female under age 18 cannot consent to sex, regardless of the age of the other party. Thus, sexual relations between two 17-year-olds would be illegal, as would relations between a 17-year-old and a 25-year-old.

Thus, in order to understand a specific state’s laws, one must look to see which of these elements is included. The individual state law summaries contained in this report help the reader get a better sense of how statutory rape is defined in a specific state.

2. Reporting Requirements

State civil codes spell out reporting requirements. They detail who must report (i.e., mandated reporters) and where reports must be made (generally child protective services, law enforcement, or both). In almost all states, the reporting requirements related to statutory rape are found in the section of the civil code that describes child abuse reporting. As such, the requirement to report statutory rape is generally dictated by states’ definition of child abuse — which varies substantially by state. Statutory rape is not always a reportable offense.

A primary factor in determining whether statutory rape is child abuse is the relationship between the victim and the defendant. In roughly one-third of state codes, statutory rape is only considered child abuse — and therefore a reportable offense — if it is perpetrated or allowed by a person responsible for the care of the child.[1]  Take the example of State A above. The relationship in question involves a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old. This would be a violation of the state’s criminal code. However, suppose this state defines child abuse as any sexual act that is in violation of criminal law, but only if the act was perpetrated by the victim’s parent or other person responsible for the child’s care. In this state, statutory rape would not be a reportable offense under the child abuse code if the person who perpetrated the crime was not responsible for the care of the child.

In the remaining two-thirds of the states, the statutes outline circumstances where statutory rape is a reportable offense regardless of the relationship between the victim and the defendant. Within these states there is a wide continuum. In some, there are limited circumstances in which an offense must be reported. For example, in some of the states where state statutory rape is only a reportable offense if the defendant is someone responsible for the care of the child in question, the reporting requirements make an exception for those cases involving a victim who is below a certain age (e.g., less than 12 years of age). In these cases, mandated reporters must notify the proper authorities of suspected abuse regardless of the defendant’s relationship to the victim. At the other end of the spectrum are states in which the definition of child abuse includes all statutory rape offenses; mandated reporters are required to notify the proper authorities of statutory rape regardless of the relationship between the victim and defendant.

The wide variation among states in terms of the relationship between the different criminal offenses and reporting requirements necessitates close examination of the individual state summaries.

Implications for Program Staff and Policy Makers

Staff in the three HHS programs of interest have to understand to sets of laws concerning statutory rape. First, they have to understand the criminal code in the state — that is, what types of sexual activities are and are not legal. They need to be able to identify whether or not the teenager is involved in an illegal relationship. Second, they must determine whether or not they are required to report this relationship to the proper authorities. Thus, they must have a grasp of child abuse reporting laws.

This is not always a straightforward exercise. In many states, the two sections of law do not align neatly. For example, in some states the civil code (and reporting requirements) references specific sexual acts listed in the criminal code. In other states, the definition of child abuse does not reference any statutory rape-related offenses defined in the criminal code.

Structure of Report

This report is divided into the following sections:

Endnote

[1] The exact definition of this relationship varies by state, but it usually includes the child’s parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker. In many cases is also includes the child’s teacher, doctor, or coach.


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