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.
Gene J. Puskar/AP
Students stand outside Penn State's Old Main building, protesting the handling of a child abuse scandal involving retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Gene J. Puskar/AP
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.
Former NHL hockey player Sheldon Kennedy testified before the Senate subcommittee on children and families during a hearing on child abuse. As a young teen, he said, he was sexually abused for years by a respected hockey coach, but the adults around him who suspected never said a thing.
"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.