Lawmakers work to define, criminalize grooming in Ohio law

State lawmakers began their legislative push Tuesday to define and criminalize grooming, an increasingly familiar colloquial term that describes an adult deliberately fostering a connection with a minor with the end goal of sexual activity.

House Bill 322, the first attempt to define grooming in Ohio law, defines it as a “pattern of conduct... (that) would cause a reasonable adult person to believe that the person is communicating with the minor with purpose to entice, coerce, solicit, or prepare the minor to engage in sexual activity.”

The early proposal specifically bans individuals 18 years or older from engaging in the described pattern of conduct with any minor that is four or more years younger than them. Adults found to be in violation of the law would be guilty of a second degree misdemeanor, at least. Punishments increase from there if the adult supplied mind-altering substances like drugs or alcohol, if the adult had previously been convicted of child abuse or sexual offenses, or if the adult had a protective obligation over the minor.

The bill was proposed by Southwest Ohio Reps. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, and Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, who testified in favor of it on Tuesday.

“What we’re trying to do with the grooming part is to get at the situation before it matures or ripens into a case of actual sexual abuse,” Seitz explained during the bill’s first hearing in the House Civil Justice Committee. “It’s a way to clamp down on what has proven to be the precursors, oftentimes, of sexual abuse. The person will groom the individual child to begin to feel comfortable around that person and ultimately engage in forbidden acts with the abuser.”

Several other states have already defined and criminalized grooming, including Texas and Indiana. According to Seitz, Indiana’s recently passed law was used as a model for his proposed definition and criminalization of grooming. He said he coordinated with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, too, which “approved it as a meaningful way to deter grooming behavior that may not be captured in other parts of Ohio law.”

The bill also aims to make additional reforms to current Ohio laws that protect minors from sexual abuse, namely by lengthening the statute of limitations from two to four years in which a prosecutor may pursue criminal cases against mandatory reporters who failed in their duty to report abuse.

The committee has yet to hear public testimony on the bill.

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