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Sandusky child sex abuse scandal raises questions about state laws

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State, many states are reexamining their laws requiring people to report suspected abuse.

By Joann LoviglioAssociated Press / June 9, 2012

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky leaves the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., June 5 after the first day of jury selection for his trial on child sexual abuse charges. The trial begins Monday.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

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PHILADELPHIA

When the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State erupted last year, public anger was not only directed toward Jerry Sandusky, whose trial begins Monday, but toward the people around him who didn't report their suspicions to police.

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In the months that followed, that anger led many states to re-examine and expand their so-called mandatory reporting laws that require people to report suspected abuse or face civil and criminal penalties. Some state laws apply to professionals like doctors and teachers, while others apply universally to all adults.

Child advocates and academics are divided, however, about whether increasing the number of mandatory reporters will make the public more vigilant, or simply overload an already stretched-thin child welfare system and siphon limited resources from children who need help most.

Forty-eight states require at least some professionals to immediately report knowledge or suspicion of child sexual abuse to some authority, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The list of professionals varies by state and can include teachers, school nurses, doctors, social workers, police, day care workers, coaches and camp counselors.

Of those states, 18 have laws that require mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse by all adults.

IN PICTURES: Fallout from the Penn State scandal

Many states have no specific sanctions for those who fail to comply with such laws, while others have penalties but they are not enforced unless a case is particularly heinous or deadly, said Teresa Huizar of the National Children's Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"On the surface, [universal mandatory reporting] sounds like an outstanding idea," she said, "but if you make something everybody's responsibility, it can end up becoming no one's responsibility."

About 105 bills on the reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect have been introduced in 2012 legislative sessions in 30 states and the District of Columbia, many of them directly in response to the Sandusky case. Legislation has since been enacted in 10 of those states, according to the latest NCSL tally.

Oregon, West Virginia, Virginia, and South Dakota are among states that expanded their list of professions that are mandatory reporters, while Indiana and Iowa are requiring schools to develop new policies and reporting procedures for responding to suspected child abuse.

Indiana, also in response to the Penn State scandal, passed legislation that requires the state to work with child sexual abuse experts to develop education materials, response policies, and reporting procedures on child sexual abuse. A new Iowa law requires schools to implement policy for employees in contact with children to report suspected physical or sexual abuse.

Also as a direct result of the Sandusky case, Florida has passed what is now the toughest mandatory reporting legislation in the country: Failure to report suspected child abuse is a felony, and universities would be fined $1 million and stripped of state funding for two years if officials don't report child abuse. The law applies to everyone — from university coaching staff to elementary school teachers to students.

"Florida now has the toughest laws in the country for protecting children," said Book, who created a nonprofit foundation for child abuse victims and pushed for tougher sex offender laws with her father, lobbyist Ron Book.

She said the legislation compels individuals and institutions to speak up, the aim of which is to prevent what allegedly happened at Penn State from occurring in Florida.

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