In wake of Sandusky scandal, questions about laws

Associated Press Modified: June 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm •  Published: June 9, 2012
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — When the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State erupted last year, public anger was directed not only toward Jerry Sandusky, whose trial begins Monday, but toward the people around him who didn't report their suspicions to police.

In the months that followed, that anger led many states to re-examine and expand their so-called mandatory reporting laws that require people to report suspected abuse or face civil and criminal penalties. Some state laws apply to professionals like doctors and teachers, while others apply universally to all adults.

Child advocates and academics are divided, however, about whether increasing the number of mandatory reporters will make the public more vigilant, or simply overload an already stretched-thin child welfare system and siphon limited resources from children who need help most.

Forty-eight states require at least some professionals to immediately report knowledge or suspicion of child sexual abuse to some authority, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The list of professionals varies by state and can include teachers, school nurses, doctors, social workers, police, day care workers, coaches and camp counselors.

Of those states, 18 have laws that require mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse by all adults.

Many states have no specific sanctions for those who fail to comply with such laws, while others have penalties but they are not enforced unless a case is particularly heinous or deadly, said Teresa Huizar of the National Children's Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"On the surface, (universal mandatory reporting) sounds like an outstanding idea," she said, "but if you make something everybody's responsibility, it can end up becoming no one's responsibility."

About 105 bills on the reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect have been introduced in 2012 legislative sessions in 30 states and the District of Columbia, many of them directly in response to the Sandusky case. Legislation has since been enacted in 10 of those states, according to the latest NCSL tally updated Monday.

Oregon, West Virginia, Virginia and South Dakota are among states that expanded their list of professions that are mandatory reporters, while Indiana and Iowa are requiring schools to develop new policies and reporting procedures for responding to suspected child abuse.

Indiana, also in response to the Penn State scandal, passed legislation that requires the state to work with child sexual abuse experts to develop education materials, response policies and reporting procedures on child sexual abuse. A new Iowa law requires schools to implement policy for employees in contact with children to report suspected physical or sexual abuse.

Also as a direct result of the Sandusky case, Florida has passed what is now the toughest mandatory reporting legislation in the country: Failure to report suspected child abuse is a felony, and universities would be fined $1 million and stripped of state funding for two years if officials don't report child abuse. The law applies to everyone — from university coaching staff to elementary school teachers to students.

"Florida now has the toughest laws in the country for protecting children," said Lauren Book, who created a nonprofit foundation for child abuse victims and pushed for tougher sex offender laws with her father, lobbyist Ron Book.

She said the legislation compels individuals and institutions to speak up, the aim of which is to prevent what allegedly happened at Penn State from occurring in Florida.

"Mandatory reporting is a good thing but it's only a Band-Aid for a bigger issue," said Jim Hmurovich, president of Chicago-based child advocacy organization Prevent Child Abuse America. "The right solution is we should ensure as adults that the abuse and neglect ever happens in the first place."

Dozens of universities are implementing their own reporting requirements. Penn State itself has instituted a new policy requiring all employees to report suspected child abuse to state authorities, while the University of Arkansas requires university employees who suspect child abuse to first call the state's Child Abuse Hotline and campus police.

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