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Years later, legislature poised to finally pass post-Nassar reforms

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State lawmakeres in both the House and Senate will be back in Lansing today

More than two years since Michigan passed legislation giving childhood victims of sexual abuse more time to sue, lawmakers are again taking up bills inspired by the Larry Nassar scandal. 

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee is scheduled to weigh several more minor proposals, including ones that would expand who is required to report suspected child abuse, require an additional individual be present during certain medical examinations of minors, and require doctors keep medical records referencing anal or vaginal penetration for 15 years.

“These are things we’ve been working on for three years,” says Republican Representative Mary Whiteford, who’s sponsoring the bill requiring doctors to include any vaginal or anal penetration during an appointment in their medical records, and retain those records for 15 years. (There are exemptions for urologists, gynecologists, and others.)

“We've had a very, very challenging year with COVID,” says Whiteford, registered nurse from Allegan County’s Casco Township. “The priorities have been on COVID response. And we’re getting to the end of the session.”

And the committee’s chair, Senator Peter Lucido, was just elected to be Macomb County’s new prosecutor in November. Lucido himself was removed as chair of another committee and instructed to attend anti-sexual harassment training earlier this year, after three women came forward to accuse him of misconduct.

“Senator Lucido’s finishing up his term early, because he's going into a new role,” Whiteford says. “And so he's always had a commitment to add additional protections for families.”

Asked whether the allegations facing Lucido hurt the Legislature’s stated goal of ending sexual abuse, Whiteford said she didn’t think it did. “I don’t think it diminishes things.”

Lucido maintains that he didn’t sexually harass anyone. His office did not return a request for comment.

While the legislation being taken up on Tuesday may not be able to stop abusers, it does give children, parents and prosecutors additional support, Whiteford says. 

“There are still going to be bad people out there. But just looking from a legislator's role, this is just one more tool in the toolbox that the people of Michigan have. So that if these records weren't there, if there's any suspicion of things, at least a child who has become an adult, or their family, can say, ‘Hey, you didn't keep these records, now you broke the law,” she says.

“I can't legislate good and bad behavior, but at least I can put some things in the hands of the families and prosecutors; if this information isn't there, why isn't it there, when by law that it has to be there?”

The law passed in 2018 allows people who were sexually abused as children to be able to sue until their 28th birthdays, or three years from when they realize they have been abused. (Previously, the deadline to file a civil lawsuit in Michigan was a minor victim’s 19th birthday. There is no statute of limitations for filing criminal charges of first-degree sexual assault.)

At the time, several Nassar victims including Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse, said while the final legislation was a step forward, they were “deeply disappointed”  the Republican-led legislature did not pass a bill that would have retroactively helped all childhood sexual abuse victims.

Whiteford says she “understand[s] where they’re coming from,” but doesn’t believe the more expansive legislation should have been passed into law.

“I don’t think we failed in that aspect,” Whiteford says. “I would like to have somebody come forth to me, where every single situation like this - and this is what I honestly, when I have a conversation with a survivor, I said, ‘You know what? There are so many children out there [who were molested.] It's just not in the realm that you are in, that this happened. And we need to take it into perspective, that a law like that would affect almost 10 million residents in Michigan. Not just a small pocket for them to go personally after Larry Nassar.”

Whiteford is hopeful the Legislature will be able to come to some final resolution on these proposals, more than four years after Denhollander first came forward.

“I think it's putting some closure on moving on this,” she says. “I know I can't fix everything, but as a legislator and a mom, a nurse, a grandma, that at least I know that I did leave some issues to rest that were open during the time that we were investigating this.”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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