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Calls For More Reporting Of Suspected Child Abuse

Dec 21, 2011
Originally published on December 21, 2011 10:35 am

The revelations about alleged child sex abuse by a former Penn State football coach have caused policymakers to propose new measures to broaden who is required to report suspected abuse.

Each state already has laws that require some combination of doctors, teachers, day care providers and others who work with children to report suspected abuse. If they don't, they could face fines, the loss of a license, and, in some states, possibly jail time.

Now several states want to expand the list of who's a mandated reporter — especially in places where coaches are not already included. Among the states with calls to expand required reporting or to stiffen penalties for those who fail to do so are: California, New York, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Maryland.

Proposals to make every adult legally required to report suspected child physical and sexual abuse have surfaced in Missouri and Pennsylvania — the home of Penn State — as well as in Congress.

At Senate Hearing, Former Hockey Player Discusses Abuse

At a recent Senate hearing, former pro hockey player Sheldon Kennedy told lawmakers that he was sexually abused by a respected hockey coach in Canada when he was a young teen.

"In every case of child abuse — certainly in my own — there are people who had a gut feeling that something was wrong but didn't do anything about it," Kennedy testified before the Senate subcommittee on children and families.

"Their attitude was, 'I don't want to get involved,' 'It's not my problem,' 'He couldn't possibly being doing that,' 'Uh, the authorities will take care of it.' And that's what pedophiles and predators are counting on. They are counting on public's ignorance or — worse yet — their indifference. That's what keeps child abusers in business," Kennedy said.

Members of Congress, including Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, have introduced bills to strengthen child-protection laws in the wake of the Penn State revelations. Casey's proposal would require every state to pass laws that make every adult a mandated reporter of child abuse. States that fail to do so would lose federal funding to prevent and respond to child abuse.

"It's almost hard to begin to comprehend the horror that a child must feel when they're the victim of abuse," Casey said at the hearing, "but maybe especially when they're the victim of abuse by someone they know, someone they trust and maybe even someone that they love."

Casey also said that if all adults are legally required to report suspected abuse, they will be more likely to speak up.

Doctors And Child Protection Officials Question Proposals

But the proposals in Congress and across the country are being met with skepticism.

Joette Katz, commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Children and Families, worries that the proposed legislation will only make it harder for her department to fight abuse.

"Whether someone's a mandated reporter or not, you walk in and you see somebody sexually molesting a 10-year-old, you don't need a statute to tell you that that's a crime," says Katz. "You don't need a statute to tell you that you should be reporting it to the police."

Katz says about 30 percent of the calls to the agency's hotline already come from people who aren't mandated reporters. She worries that if everyone feels legally bound to report their suspicions, her case workers would get inundated with junk reports. Also, an investigation can be traumatic for children and their families.

Robert Block, a pediatrician and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says it would be almost impossible to train every adult how to spot real child abuse cases. Block says doctors underreport sometimes because they don't know what to do.

"Even among physicians and pediatricians as child specialists, there's a lack of understanding how the report should be made and how it circulates," he says.

In other cases, he says, physicians "don't want to report to law enforcement because of the consequences to the family" and because of their "distrust of the system, which is sometimes well-placed, because the system is overwhelmed."

There's already a record of making every adult a mandated reporter.

"There are some states that already have universal mandatory reporting — 18 states," says Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children's Alliance, a group that trains and certifies child advocacy centers that help victims of abuse. "That experience, however, has been somewhat mixed."

Huizar says that in those 18 states, the results are all over the place. In some states, the number of reports increased. And so did the number of unfounded claims of abuse. But in other states, those numbers came down.

And that, she says, makes it hard to figure out how to make effective national policy.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The child sexual abuse case involving a former Penn State football coach raises the question of whether the alleged abuse could have been stopped earlier if more people had gone to the police with their suspicions.

Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 52 counts of molesting boys. Congress and some states are now exploring the idea of making every adult legally responsible for reporting suspected abuse.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Right now, every state has laws that require some combination of doctors, teachers, day-care providers, and others who work with kids to report suspected abuse or else face fines, the loss of a license - and in some states, possibly even jail time. The idea that every adult should be legally required to report suspected child physical and sexual abuse came up at a recent Senate hearing.

SHELDON KENNEDY: In every case of child abuse - certainly in my own - there are people who had a gut feeling that something was wrong but didn't do anything about it.

SHAPIRO: Sheldon Kennedy, a former pro hockey player, told the lawmakers how when he was a young teen, he was sexually abused for years by a respected hockey coach in Canada and that the adults around him who suspected never said a thing.

KENNEDY: Their attitude was, I don't want to get involved; it's not my problem; he couldn't possibly being doing that; ah, the authorities will take care of it. And that's what pedophiles and predators are counting on. They are counting on public's ignorance, or worse yet, their indifference. That's what keeps child abusers in business and that, Senators, is what we have to address.

SHAPIRO: U.S. Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is trying to address it.

SEN. BOB CASEY: It's almost hard to begin to comprehend the horror that a child must feel when they're the victim of abuse, but maybe especially when they're the victim of abuse by someone that they know, someone that they trust, and maybe even someone that they love.

SHAPIRO: Casey introduced legislation that would require every state to pass laws that make every adult a mandated reporter of child abuse.

CASEY: So it is the ultimate betrayal, and it happens because adults fail.

SHAPIRO: Casey's theory is that if all adults are legally required to report suspected abuse, they'll be more likely to speak up. But the proposal in Congress, and similar ones around the country, are being met with skepticism.

JOETTE KATZ: Whether someone's a mandatory reporter or not, you walk in and you see somebody sexually molesting a 10-year-old, you don't need a statute to tell you that that's a crime. You don't need a statute to tell you that you should be reporting it to the police.

SHAPIRO: Joette Katz runs the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut. She says about 30 percent of the calls to the agency's hotline already come from people who aren't mandated reporters, and that works. But if everyone feels legally bound to report their suspicions, she worries her case workers will get inundated with junk reports. An investigation can be traumatic for children and their families.

Robert Block is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The pediatrician says it would be almost impossible to train every adult how to spot real cases of child abuse. Dr. Block says that even doctors under-report.

DR. ROBERT BLOCK: Some people don't want to report to law enforcement because of the consequences to the family. Others have had a bad experience. Even among physicians - and even among pediatricians, as child specialists - there is a lack of understanding of how the report should be made and where it circulates.

SHAPIRO: This idea of making every adult a mandated reporter - it's been tried before. Teresa Huizar runs the National Children's Alliance. It trains agencies that help victims of abuse.

TERESA HUIZAR: There are some states that already have universal mandatory reporting - 18 states. That experience, however, has been somewhat mixed.

SHAPIRO: Huizar says that in those 18 states that already require everyone to report suspected abuse, the results are all over the place. In some states, the number of reports went up. And so did the number of unfounded claims of abuse. But in other states, those numbers came down. And that, she says, makes it hard to figure out how to make effective national policy.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.