Penn State lesson: what to do if you suspect sexual abuse of a child
Whether or not Mike McQueary told police of the alleged sexual assault of a young boy, the Penn State scandal raises the issue of how to handle such cases. Every US state has its own laws.
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What is considered “reasonable cause”?Skip to next paragraph
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Very simply put, it is what a reasonable person would think, says Ms. Atwell-Davis. She says that is one of the reasons why so few states try to define reasonable cause. “There is such a wide range of cases and facts, it’s hard to generalize,” she says.
For example, since child sexual abuse is rarely witnessed, most states rely on physical evidence or a child’s behavior. A child may have bruises or may be bleeding in an area that indicates a sexual assault. Someone familiar with a child may notice they have suddenly become withdrawn and non-communicative.
But bruises alone may not mean anything. “Maybe someone sees bruises on a little girl’s thighs and thinks she has been attacked when she may have just been climbing a tree,” says Atwell-Davis.
Is it sufficient just to go to the police?
Many states have at least two requirements – the police and a child welfare agency or department of human services.
“The child welfare or protective agency can look into the child’s family situation,” says Atwell-Davis, “while the police can find the offender and prosecute him.”
Are there any exemptions?
Yes, many states have exemptions for clergy who hear about sexual abuse in the course of a confession or some other religious practice. North Dakota, for example, exempts a member of the clergy from reporting abuse “if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser.” Arizona, Alaska, and some other states exempt Christian Science practitioners, but many states do not.
Oklahoma very specifically states that “no privilege or contract” relieves anyone from the requirement of reporting abuse.
North Carolina, while not exempting clergy, exempts attorneys who hear about abuse in the course of representing someone charged with abuse.
What if someone reports abuse but it is later determined that it didn’t happen?
Almost every state grants immunity from prosecution to anyone who reports child abuse in good faith. However, Oklahoma levies a $5,000 fine for anyone who accuses someone of child abuse during a child custody hearing but knows the charge is false.
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