A bill created after Concord psychologist Foad Afshar’s sexual-assault conviction would require sexual-assault survivors to have additional proof of their assault other than their word.
House Bill 106, introduced by District 8 Rep. William Marsh of Wolfeboro, would require a victim’s testimony in a sexual assault case to have corroboration in instances where the defendant has no prior convictions for sexual assault, according to the bill’s text. Marsh said he drafted the bill after his daughter, who was a student of Afshar’s at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, brought the case to his attention.
“She said, ‘This isn’t the man I knew,’ and I trust my daughter’s judgment of people,” Marsh, a retired medical doctor, said Thursday night.
Afshar of Bow was sentenced Aug. 26 to three to six years in prison for one felony count of aggravated sexual assault and an alternative misdemeanor count of simple assault, as well as two counts of unlawful mental health practice, both misdemeanors.
The charges stemmed from an accusation that Afshar touched a young patient’s genitals during a session Jan. 6, 2015, and had allowed his license to practice to lapse at the time of the crime. He is incarcerated at a facility in Massachusetts, according to the state prison’s website.
Afshar has requested a new trial in Merrimack County Superior Court after it came to light that two of the jurors who sat on his case were childhood sexual abuse survivors. He also requested an appeal through the state’s Supreme Court in September, but that has been stayed until Merrimack County makes a decision on whether to provide a new trial.
The bill was just introduced to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Thursday, but it’s already facing resistance from the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“This is going to be the coalition’s No. 1 priority this legislative session, to defeat this bill,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public policy for the coalition and Concord city councilor-at-large. She said the bill would create an instance where a higher standard of proof would be required for sexual assault victims than any other crime, and would perpetuate the idea that victims lie about being assaulted.
“This bill would be saying a victim’s sworn testimony isn’t good enough, even if it’s been viewed as credible by 12 sworn jurors,” she said.
Marsh said he’s interested in addressing what he said is a legislative process that leaves anyone, whether it’s a medical professional or a grandparent, open to false accusation. He was also concerned that psychologists not taking on juveniles would be dangerous to children as well. He was particularly moved to create the bill when he was contacted by Michael Kandle, a friend and colleague of Afshar’s, and two other psychologists who told him they were afraid to take on children clients after the conviction because they felt they were at risk of being falsely accused.
“If we have children who have already suffered unable to get the treatment they need, they’re going to grow into the next generation of abusers,” he said.
Marsh referenced a report from the University of New Hampshire, titled “Prosecuting Child Sexual Abuse,” which stated that about 26 percent of child sexual abuse cases had no supporting evidence; 35 percent had one type of evidence, and 23 percent had two types of evidence. That report also says 87 percent of cases had a child disclosure, and nearly half of reported cases had a corroborating witness. About 1 in 5 cases had an offender confession, behavioral evidence, or an eyewitness account.
“We want to set a little higher bar, to make sure people who aren’t guilty don’t get behind bars,” he said.
But Grady Sexton said there’s no proof psychologists are turning away children clients and said there are numerous psychologists across the state who treat sexual assault survivors. She said the idea that Afshar has no prior convictions does not mean he has not hurt others.
“The savviest abusers are often the ones who are in positions of authority or are well-known in their community, such as doctors, or priests, who will be seen as more credible than their accusers,” she said. “They can lead their victims to believe that if they tell anyone about what happened, there will be repercussions.”
Grady Sexton went on to say there is no proof that children exaggerate or lie about their abuse; in fact, she said there is proof that children tend to minimize or underreport their abuse.
She referenced a report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which stated that the prevalence of false reporting in sex abuse cases is between 2 and 10 percent. She also cited data from the U.S. Dept. of Justice which states approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.
Grady Sexton said that if psychologists were concerned about being falsely accused, they should take protective measures, such as ensuring there is both a man and woman professional in the session at the same time. She added that the policy was “tone-deaf” in light of recent high-profile sexual assault cases in the state, such as the sex-assault trial of former St. Paul’s student Owen Labrie.
District 4 Rep. Jess Edwards, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said he supports the bill because he fears there will be a “chilling effect” among organizations, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boy Scouts, where adults provide leadership for children.
“I’m concerned those adults won’t want to get involved after learning how easy it is to be put in jail,” he said.
But District 14 State Rep. Mary Heath, who is also sponsoring the bill, said she is having second thoughts about whether she wants to continue to support it. She said she wants to learn more about the conviction process before she makes a decision.
“As an educator, my whole self is about protecting kids, and I’d want to make sure children have a better chance at being safe and secure,” she said.
(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)