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.
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"Mandatory reporting is a good thing but it's only a Band-Aid for a bigger issue," said Jim Hmurovich, president of Chicago-based child advocacy organization Prevent Child Abuse America. "The right solution is we should ensure as adults that the abuse and neglect ever happens in the first place."Skip to next paragraph
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Dozens of universities are also implementing their own reporting requirements. Penn State itself has instituted a new policy requiring all employees to report suspected child abuse to state authorities, while the University of Arkansas requires university employees who suspect child abuse to first call the state's Child Abuse Hotline and campus police.
Hmurovich and Huizar said they support the idea of mandatory reporting laws, even if imperfect.
"When we don't prevent abuse and neglect from happening we spend $80 billion a year trying to remediate it with treatment," Hmurovich said.
Critics contend that such laws force child welfare workers to investigate an endless flow of inconsequential complaints, to separate children needlessly from their parents and wreak havoc on innocent families.
"We don't have a problem of underreporting child abuse. We dramatically over-report already," said New York University law professor Martin Guggenheim, who specializes in legal issues related to child welfare. "We do have a problem of not doing enough for families who come to child welfare agencies and need help."
He said roughly 60 percent of child abuse reports end up being classified as unfounded cases, with no evidence of mistreatment, and predicted mandatory reporting laws may send that number even higher.
"Politicians serve themselves well. ... They recognized that Americans were [angry]" in the aftermath of the Penn State scandal, Guggenheim said, and began proposing legislation without clear understanding of child welfare issues.
He said that reporting laws have "turned child welfare practice into a quasi-criminal enterprise where everyone's out there looking for wrongdoers."
"I know what it can do to caseloads. What's more important, children or caseloads?" Hmurovich said. "The common reaction is, 'It's somebody else's child, I'm not going to intervene, I'm not going to make the matters worse,' but if it's the law you've got to do something about it."
There's not enough evidence to say whether there has been an overall increase in abuse reports nationwide, Huizar said. Some individual states did experience temporary increases in reports after the Penn State allegations surfaced.
New Jersey's child abuse hotline received as many as 750 calls a day in November after a grand jury indicted Sandusky, compared with 400 in the months before the scandal broke. In Pennsylvania, where about 2,300 reports of suspected child abuse are reported every week, there were more than 4,800 reports of suspected child abuse made statewide for weeks after Sandusky's indictment.
Massachusetts-based child advocacy group Stop It Now saw a 130 percent spike in calls during the first two weeks after the sexual abuse allegations at Penn State, services coordinator Jenny Coleman said.
Huizar said standardizing the current patchwork of requirements, agencies and procedures would make reporting abuse less intimidating and difficult — but perhaps more importantly, a national awareness campaign would be an invaluable step to reducing the societal stigma that makes victims and witnesses remain silent.
"In the same way we've taught people about the dangers of smoking, about using seat belts, about drinking and driving, when there's that kind of a commitment, you really see the dial move in the right direction," she said. "Without that level of investment, you're not going to see that kind of result."
Despite the uncertainty about whether legislation brings about better outcomes, Huizar said the Sandusky case has shown that there have been encouraging changes when it comes to the way Americans view child abuse.
"The instantaneous and universal outrage … really is different than what you would have had a decade ago," Huizar said. "People were instantly saying, why didn't the adults do more? That assumption is an enormously positive change in our societal understanding of who has responsibility for reporting abuse. So we're learning."