Senators Introduce Bill to Strengthen Child Abuse Reporting Laws

November 18, 2011 | CQ |  Link to article

Nearly two weeks after a former Pennsylvania State University football coach was charged with sexually abusing boys, two Democratic senators are seeking to strengthen child abuse reporting laws.

Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Barbara Boxer of California introduced legislation Nov. 16 that would require states to pass and enforce a law requiring adults to report instances of known or suspected child abuse. The states would need to establish the law in order to receive funding through the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (PL 93-247).

"As we're trying to comprehend what appears to be a case of blatant failure on the part of adults to protect children, our focus should be on doing everything we can to prevent abuse in the future," Casey said, referring to the case against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. "I introduced this legislation to close a loophole that allows abusers to get away with heinous crimes and emphasize the responsibility of all adults to protect children from abuse and neglect."

The bill (S 1877), which is sponsored by Casey, would stipulate that child abuse must be reported directly to law enforcement or the state's child protective services agency.

Federal law requires witnesses to report child abuse, but it does not specify to whom the report must be made. In Pennsylvania and many other states, the witness is only required to report abuse to the institution where it occurred, which can delay or prevent legal action.

The bill also would provide support to states to carry out educational campaigns and training about child abuse and neglect, promote new approaches and techniques to improve reporting, and evaluate states' progress on mandatory reporting.

Boxer plans to introduce similar reporting legislation.

"To protect our children from violence and abuse, anyone who sees or knows about a crime against a child must report it to local authorities," she said. "Right now, the federal government and 32 states have no such requirement in law."

Rutledge Hutson, the director of child welfare for the Center for Law and Social Policy, lauded Casey's bill, saying more needs to be done to clarify what can sometimes be a complicated chain of command for reporting and reacting to child abuse.

"Children cannot protect themselves, and we all have a moral duty to step in when we see or suspect they are experiencing harm," Hutson said. "That's part of being a community."

However, she criticized the bill's proposed funding levels as "wholly inadequate": $5 million for fiscal 2012 and $10 million for each of fiscal years 2013 through 2016.

"If all we do is make reporting mandatory but provide no additional resources to respond to the reports, we will not improve the outcomes children experience and, indeed, may unintentionally do more harm than good," she said.

More than 70 percent of child maltreatment is neglect, not abuse, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. Child sexual abuse makes up an even smaller proportion of substantiated cases of maltreatment.

Future Hearings and Investigations

Casey has requested an emergency hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families to examine how the nation can improve abuse reporting and response systems.

Similarly, House Education and the Workforce ranking Democrat George Miller of California asked Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., on Thursday to call a hearing to examine whether federal laws designed to protect children and students need to be changed.

The Obama administration is also taking action.

The Department of Education announced last week that it will investigate whether Penn State failed to comply with a law (PL 101-542) that requires colleges and universities to disclose the number of criminal offenses on campus that are reported each year.

In certain cases, the law also requires the institutions to issue a timely warning if a reported crime represents a threat to the campus community.

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