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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.

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