We need better sexual abuse prevention

Nineteen years after the tragic rape and murder of 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce shook the people of our state and our nation, his killer will finally be brought to justice and executed Feb. 12. It’s a fitting time to look at how Florida’s efforts to protect children from predators have evolved and where more work needs to be done.

It’s significant that the heartbreaking tragedy prompted the passage of the Jimmy Ryce Act, which provides a process to subject sexually violent predators to civil commitment after their prison sentences are complete if a panel of experts finds that they remain an ongoing threat to society. As significant as that law is, the recent death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle illustrates the fact that Florida must engage in an annual self-examination of whether the protections we have in place are working and if we need to do more.

That is why this March I will be lacing up my sneakers and beginning my fifth annual 1,500-mile Walk in My Shoes journey across Florida. This walk allows me to raise awareness about the devastating problem of child sexual abuse and advocate for changes in Florida law that would better protect those who are vulnerable and punish those who offend.

Throughout the past five years, the walk has become a galvanizing movement with the unique ability to both allow victims of sexual abuse to come forward and begin the healing process and also stir up the will to stand up, speak out and change laws to make Florida a safer place for our children.

Every year, people ask me why I walk, and every year I give the same answer: I walk so that others don’t have to endure the same horrifying abuse that I went through. Stories like Jimmy Ryce’s break my heart and propel me to continue advocating for change.

I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, passing protective legislation year after year, but these stories, and others like them, mean that we can do more — that we must do more.

These heartbreaking cases riveted public attention and have helped catalyze legislative determination to ensure that those who pose an ongoing threat to our children are appropriately punished and civilly committed. It truly is the only way we can make sure that violent predators are not given the chance to offend again.

That’s why I’ve joined with state legislators on both sides of the aisle who are championing the cause of protecting our children by embracing comprehensive and meaningful legislative changes. Members of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, including Reps. Matt Gaetz and Gayle Harrell and Sens. Denise Grimsley and Eleanor Sobel, are sponsoring legislation that closes loopholes in the justice system, mandates community supervision of sex offenders and requires college campuses to notify students and staff when sexual offenders and predators live nearby.

Similarly, Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Rob Bradley and Greg Evers are sponsoring bills that would eliminate the statute of limitations for certain sexual crimes, increase mandatory minimum sentences for sexually violent predators and those who offend against people with developmental disabilities, and expand the identifying information sex offenders are required to register with law enforcement to include things such as email addresses, screen names and information on vehicles offenders own or have access to.

While no single law or policy can eliminate childhood sexual abuse from our state, balancing zero-tolerance offender laws with education initiatives moves us closer to a culture where the sexual exploitation of children is not tolerated.

Through our advocacy, we’ve made significant progress. However, we must recognize how much work is still left to be done. I urge the Legislature to consider the impact child sexual abuse has on communities and embrace the bills being sponsored this session.

So, this year, on the eve of the execution of Jimmy Ryce’s murderer, if you ask me why I walk, I will tell you: I walk so that the headlines are not filled with reports of tragedy, but are instead filled with stories of hope and healing.

Lauren Book is the founder and CEO of Lauren’s Kids, a nonprofit organization committed to preventing child abuse and healing survivors .

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