After Penn State, Md. may examine strengthening child abuse reporting law

State lacks criminal penalty for those who don't report abuse as law requires

November 15, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Educators, health practitioners, social service workers and police officers are required under Maryland law to report suspected child abuse to local authorities and to their bosses. But the state has no power to prosecute when the law is not followed.

That puts Maryland out of step with the majority of states, most of which classify failure to report abuse as a criminal misdemeanor. Arizona, Florida and Minnesota treat failure to report more serious abuse as a felony.

Following the scandal that has devastated Penn State University, some Maryland lawmakers and child advocates want to establish criminal penalties for failing to report child abuse. Reporting laws are being examined after revelations that alleged sex abuse by a former assistant football coach at Penn State had gone unreported to law enforcement for years.

"The penalties are not severe enough," Chuck Buckler, director of student services for the Maryland State Department of Education, said of Maryland's law. "We're talking about a very serious thing that can be damaging to children for their entire lives."

The issue is not only expected to be debated in next year's General Assembly session — one state lawmaker already plans to introduce a bill to create criminal penalties — but on campuses and at workplaces where there is renewed discussion of what's legally required of people who work with children.

While lawmakers and state officials say they don't believe that blatant child abuse goes unreported very often at schools, universities and care facilities, they say a discussion of tougher penalties is merited. Meanwhile, the state university system says that after the Penn State case, it is looking for any gaps in employee training on the law.

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, said Maryland can't allow a repeat of the scandal at Penn State, where the university president and legendary football coach Joe Paterno were fired after revelations that suspected child abuse was not reported to law enforcement for a number of years. Assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has been accused of sexually abusing young boys.

"Most people, I think, do the right thing and report abuse when they see it," said Jacobs, who is crafting a bill that that would add criminal penalties and is researching laws in other parts of the country. "But one of the big problems in Pennsylvania was that there was not a real penalty. I want to be fair, but we need a stronger law in Maryland."

The breadth of support for such a bill is unclear.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the issue is worthy of debate but isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

"The case at Penn State is absolutely egregious, and I can't imagine what anyone was thinking," Dumais said. "But egregious circumstances and horrible facts don't always lead to the best laws."

The problem, Dumais said, is that teachers are asked to make judgments about the likelihood of abuse when the circumstances are less clear than they allegedly were at Penn State. She said she would hate to see a teacher face criminal penalties in a case without black-and-white facts.

"I just think that whatever is drafted, we need to be very careful about how it's drafted," she said of potential legislation. "Maybe the penalty would only come in if someone actually witnessed the abuse."

David Lorenz, the Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a group protesting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting in Baltimore on Tuesday, called on Maryland lawmakers to institute "real and severe" punishment for those who fail to report child sex abuse.

Lisae Jordan, general counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that criminal penalties might be warranted against those who have direct knowledge of abuse and do nothing about it. She said she has seen a significant number of such cases, some involving educators.

But she also expressed reservations about a law that could be drawn too broadly. "The devil really is in the details," she said. "We need to make sure that whatever is done actually is designed to help the survivors of abuse."

In that light, she said it also is important to teach children how to identify and report abuse. "We have to speak directly to them," Jordan said.

Harford County State's Attorney Joe Cassilly, speaking on behalf of the state prosecutors' association, said the Penn State scandal has prompted useful discussion about the effectiveness of Maryland's reporting laws. But like Dumais, he urged caution, saying criminal penalties could create unintended consequences.

Sometimes, he said, educators or counselors have good reasons for not rushing to report possible abuse. Perhaps they're trying to retain the confidence of a victim who's reluctant to talk, he said. Cassilly said he would not want to see such professionals subject to criminal sanctions or civil lawsuits.

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