Washington State has been my home for all of my life, and I have been proud to be a native son, but my wife and I have learned this last year that our legal system has a serious flaw that many of our residents don't even know about. Our children are very poorly protected from certain sexual predators, even in the current high profile news environment we live in. Our age of consent laws leave our teens very vulnerable to these patient and calculating criminals, leaving the victim and their families with few legal options and little help.

Up until this last year we were under the impression that our state's age of consent was 18, but it is actually 16. There is not even any provision for the ages of both parties to be within five years, or even ten years of each other for example. We only have laws dealing with coaches (supervisory position only), clergy, and parents and most recently foster parents. There is no protection from family "friends," mentors, neighbors or other predators. It is perfectly "legal" in Washington State for a 45- or 60-year-old man to manipulate a 16-year-old girl or boy into consenting to have sex with them, and I think this has to change. It must be illegal for any mature adult to take advantage of a young teen.

Most of the people we have talked to thought our law had the consent age at 18. My wife and I talked to clergy, police, firefighters, teachers, counselors, doctors and friends, and the majority thought the age of consent was 18. We are the only West Coast state to have a 16-year-old consent law; we are simply behind the time. In Oregon and California the age of consent is 18. Even the high school kids we talked to thought that there was a two-year age limit on consensual sex at 16. The only group that really is up on the current laws is the sex offenders, child molesters and sex crime detectives. Our 16-year-olds are not allowed to drive with friends, not allowed to drink, smoke or watch adult movies, and cannot get a tattoo or body piercing without parent's permission. Yet these same 16-year- old kids can give nearly anyone permission to have sex with them under our current state law!

I am sure that some readers will sit back and think that this kind of scenario could not affect their families, but I want to warn everyone that it actually can. These sexual deviants are intelligent and incredibly patient hunters. They are always looking for a chance to control lives, and are very comfortable setting up a victim and the victim's family for years if need be. They are excellent groomers, slowly getting the trust of the intended victim over long periods of time, even years before they reach "legal" age. We were guilty of being fooled by one of these predators, and could not believe the lengths he went to, covering his tracks, getting trust, and infiltrating our lives. These offenders are driven by one goal, and are focused on that goal every waking moment. The incredible damage caused by their actions is very devastating, but made even worse when nothing legally can be done to stop them from doing this again to some other family.

We want to educate the public and have them contact their representatives to get this law changed. Toby Nixon has been working on a new bill. House bill 2533, and it stands a much better chance of being passed if constituents call in their support. We are working to have any exclusions removed from the law as it exists now, and make it illegal for any person more than five years older than a 16- or 17- year-old to have a sexual relationship with them. We have got to protect our children before they are hurt and traumatized.

Parents and educators need to be educated to help protect our children. Please help us protect our 16 and 17 years old by putting an age difference for consenting to sex. We don't agree that it's OK for any age adult to have sex with a 16-year-old. Call or e-mail Al O'Brien at (360) 786-7928 or obrien.al(a)leg.wa.gov or Toby Nixon at (360) 786-7878, Nixon.Toby@leg.wa.gov.

We want families to be safe, and to be educated about these types of criminals. For many families this behavior is unimaginable, but the harm it does to a young person is incalculable. Knowledge is power, and that power can save lives. As parents it is OK to trust our gut instincts, if a relationship doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. This law seems to languish in the State House for reasons unknown to our family, but nothing is more important than protecting our kids and our future, please get involved and end the silence.

Chinook Observer reader Jon Carson is a resident of Seattle and Ocean Park.

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