Vt. sex abuse laws revisited 10 years after Brooke Bennett case

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) The first woman to publicly press charges against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar is sharing her story with Vermont.

Rachel Denhollander is a former gymnast who is now an attorney. She advocates for the rights of sexual assault survivors and for laws that protect victims.

Thursday, she spoke to a gathering of Vermont advocates, educators, health care workers and lawmakers in Montpelier. Denhollander says sex abuse laws in Vermont are encouraging but more work needs to be done.

"In order to be able to stop a predator from having such a number of victims and being able to prey on children for so long, there have to be incentives for individuals and institutions to report abuse and to adopt policies that make their organization a not safe place for predators," she said.

Advocacy groups in Vermont agree more should be done. Our Dom Amato was at that conference and shows you how local leaders are responding.

"We've come quite a ways, actually, and we still have some work to do," said Auburn Watersong of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Child sex abuse is the number one form of abuse reported in Vermont. There were 342 confirmed cases in 2017. It's an issue lawmakers made a top priority 10 years ago when Act 1 was introduced.

"Democrats, Republicans, Progressives all came together on the bill," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.

Act 1 was passed in the aftermath of the Brooke Bennett case. The Braintree girl was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by her uncle in 2008.

Sears was instrumental in passing the bill that expanded reporting, improved investigations and strengthened supervision of sex offenders.

"What we accomplished was to at least identify the problem, put strategies in place to help prevent, as well as deal with sex offenders," he said.

Linda Johnson from Prevent Child Abuse Vermont believes lawmakers could do more, including extending the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases. Some lower level offenses must be reported within three to six years.

"I think it's a little complicated," Johnson said. "I think it could be easier and that alone might motivate people to come forward."

While there are many resources available for sexual abuse survivors, Johnson and others would like see more resources focused on prevention efforts.

"The way we raise our children and the way we train child care providers and educators and the way they work in schools is very, very important," Johnson said.

Sears says there will be continued review of Act 1 once the new session starts. He believes there should be a close look at funding for special investigation units, advocacy centers and prevention education.