For Immediate Release: November 17, 2011

Legislation to Protect Children a Significant First Step

Sens. Casey and Boxer introduce the Speak Up Act, a measure aimed at ensuring adults report instances of child abuse to proper authorities

Much has been said over the last week in response to tragic events in Pennsylvania where it is alleged that Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator at Pennsylvania State, sexually abused children and the abuse was witnessed by and known to many. Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) late Wednesday afternoon introduced federal legislation that attempts to create a culture in which all adults take responsibility for protecting children. This is a significant and important first step. Following is a statement by Rutledge Q. Hutson, an expert on child welfare policy and director of child welfare at CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy.

"The public is justifiably outraged and many officials are exploring what can be done to minimize the chances something like this will happen again.  Sen. Casey, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), introduced a bill Wednesday, Speak Up to Protect Every Abused Kid (Speak Up) Act of 2011, that takes important steps to creating a stronger framework for reporting child abuse and neglect. The bill is based on the premise ‘if you see something, say something', or in other words, Speak Up.

"Children cannot protect themselves, and we all have a moral duty to step in when we see or suspect they are experiencing harm.  That's part of being a community.  The Speak Up Act would direct states receiving federal funding under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to develop appropriate mechanisms to ensure that this moral duty is a legal one as well. Unfortunately, the funding level in the bill ($5 million for 2012 and $10 million for each of the years 2013 through 2016) is wholly inadequate to the task. 

"We agree with Sens. Casey and Boxer that all adults should be required to report abuse and neglect, but we also think this is only the first step. The complicated issue of child abuse and neglect should not fall off our radars after this case has been tried.  Some cases of abuse and neglect are clear cut, such as Sandusky's alleged crimes.  But many instances of child abuse and neglect are more complicated and nuanced, both in terms of what it looks like and the appropriate response. 

"More than 70 percent of child maltreatment is neglect, not abuse, and child sexual abuse makes up an even smaller proportion of substantiated cases of maltreatment.  Identifying maltreatment is often a challenge and the solutions, response, and interventions to situations involving neglect aren't always as straightforward as may be possible in the cases of sexual abuse. If, for example, a mother leaves a young child unattended but tucked into bed for the night because she can't afford child care while she works to pay the bills, the appropriate response is very different from the appropriate response to child rape.

"Sen. Casey has requested an emergency hearing by the Subcommittee on Children and Families of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. This hearing will examine what the nation needs to do to improve not just reporting of harm to children but the response children and families receive once a report is made. The hearing will help ensure that as we develop responses to the situation in Pennsylvania we are careful to create laws and policies that best serve children and families by acknowledging the complexities so often associated with child welfare.

"The bill acknowledges that there must be a public awareness campaign to help people understand what is abuse and neglect and how to respond, but it fails to provide adequate funding. It also fails to include additional funding for child welfare agencies to respond effectively to the increased reports they are likely to receive  as a result of this new law.  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.

"We understand the current economic and political climate we face, but surely our elected leaders can find sufficient funds to ensure that children who people know are being abused and neglected are reported to the proper authorities, and that those authorities have the resources to appropriately respond."


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