Amid allegations against former state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), who is accused of sexual assaulting his sister-in-law starting when she was a child, a new bill introduced in the state House would make evidence of grooming admissible in court.
House Bill 5767, introduced by Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), seeks to explicitly allow evidence of grooming to refute a claim of consent in sexual assault or abuse cases.
Grooming is manipulative behaviors that an abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim and coerce them into either agreeing to the abuse or believing it isn’t abuse.
Kathryn Robb, the executive director of Child USAdvocacy, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that advocates against child sexual abuse, said grooming often shows up when there is an “emotional connection that makes the kid feel like special in the eyes of this teacher, coach, clergy member” or other important adults in the child’s life.
“The vast amount of children, as high as over 90% of kids that are sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday, know their perpetrator and often know the perpetrator very well,” said Robb. “So they’re in a position of both power and trust. … What they do is they try to make the kid feel comfortable, they slowly pull them in to this space that escalates from gift giving, time alone, to maybe a touch on the knee or the leg that escalates further to very explicit sexual assaults.”
Last month, Chatfield’s 26-year-old sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, accused him of sexually abusing her beginning when she was 15 years old. Jamie White, Rebekah Chatfield’s attorney, said the assaults continued until about July 2021.
Chatfield has denied all allegations of assault, but his attorney said the two had a consensual “affair” starting when she was an adult.
Currently, under Michigan’s Rule of Evidence (MRE) 404b, the use of character evidence in courts is generally prohibited, but the rule has some exceptions, “such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, scheme or plan.”
LaGrand told the Advance that HB 5767 would eliminate the gray area and debate around grooming evidence in sexual assault cases.
“This bill is important because more and more information is coming to light that shows us how often people in positions of power groom their victims long in advance with intent to ultimately proceed to sexual assault. Things that start as innocent comments are laying the groundwork and normalizing what ultimately becomes unwanted advances,” LaGrand said.
“It’s unacceptable and repellent when offenders claim that their victims consented when they have worked for long periods of time to normalize unwanted advances, and then create what they can argue is an appearance of consent.”
According to Rebekah Chatfield, who shared her story with Bridge Michigan early this year, Lee Chatfield began sexually assaulting her when she was a student at Northern Michigan Christian Academy in Burt Lake, where Lee Chatfield was working at the time. The age of consent in Michigan is 16, but it rises to 18 when the perpetrator is an educator at the school.
Robb said victims of grooming are often in a “disadvantaged social position,” meaning they have unsteady relationships at home, struggling with mental health or living in poverty.
Rebekah Chatfield said that at the time the abuse began she was going through “a traumatic and vulnerable time” in her life.
Last week, the police aided the house of two former top Chatfield staffers, Rob and Anne Minard. MSP public affairs manager Shannon Banner said the department is working in conjunction with the attorney general’s office as part of an ongoing investigation, but would not specify any details about the police’s investigation at the Minards’ house.
HB 5767 was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. More than 30 Democrats have co-sponsored the bill, but there are no co-sponsors from the Republican Party, which controls both the House and Senate.
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