Mandatory reporting of child abuse is obligation not to be taken lightly

In all the questions swirling around the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, one stands out: How could such high-level officials suspect sexual abuse was occurring and not report it?

The question is both a legal and moral one.

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is accused of sexually abusing or molesting eight boys. But what really caught the media’s attention was an incident in 2002 where a Penn State graduate assistant allegedly witnessed a sexual act between Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy in the football locker room showers. He reported that incident to legendary coach Joe Paterno, who reported it to Athletic Director Tim Curley. They and other university officials never reported the incident to authorities.

Even for someone who has seen as many child sex abuse cases as Douglas County chief assistant district attorney Amy McGowan, the information from the grand jury’s report that detailed the allegations was shocking.

“The first question is how could it go on and no one do anything about it,” she said.

The scenario at Penn State reminds McGowan of the scandal of sexual abuse that continues to rock the Catholic Church.

“Much like the Catholic Church, they didn’t want to believe it was happening, they didn’t want their reputation to be sullied,” McGowan said.

McGowan, who handles many of the district’s sex crime cases, knows that people’s immediate impulse is to believe the sexual abuse is not happening. And often they are afraid of the repercussions of reporting it.

“People are really afraid of a witch hunt kind of deal. They know if they report accusations that are valid it can change people’s lives and have a long-lasting effect. Adults know when I pick up that phone and make the call, this is what can happen,” McGowan said. “What I say ... (is) err on the side of caution for the protection of the child.”

In Kansas, state law requires people in certain kinds of professions to report child sexual abuse to the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. The list of mandatory reporters is a long one and focuses mainly on those who commonly come in contact with children.

“It’s designed to make sure that those who have the most contact with children, who are the likely ones to see the potential for abuse and neglect, report it,” SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki said.

It includes doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists, psychologists, social workers, therapists, counselors, teachers, school administrators, other school employees where the child attends, child care providers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, emergency responders, court services officers, case managers and mediators.

While it’s clear that those working in schools are required to report child sexual abuse in Kansas, universities are in a grayer area.

Siedlecki said all academic institutions would fall under the mandated reporting law. But in a statement issued Thursday, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said the state’s mandatory reporting law doesn’t cover institutions of higher education. However, she stated KU is examining changes to its policies that would “codify that responsibility for our employees.”

Mandated reporting is even required for instances that usually fall under confidentiality agreements, such as those between a doctor and patient.

“You have to do it. The law makes you do it. So you are not going to be worried about other oaths or ethics or professionalism. It’s all about the protection of the child,” McGowan said.

Being a mandated reporter also means you don’t get the chance to do an investigation of your own before calling SRS. That’s what trained professionals are for, McGowan said.

Those who are mandated by law to report child sexual abuse and fail to do so could be charged with a misdemeanor, which comes with a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. The firing of Paterno and other top university officials at Penn State drives home just how serious this law is, Siedlecki said.

“It will prompt people to know if you don’t report something and follow up you could face serious penalties, including losing your job and prosecution,” Siedlecki said.

SRS has a 24-hour hot line (1-800-922-5330) for child abuse reports. Once SRS gets a report, its goal is to have an initial written assessment within the next half working day. Those are calls SRS takes seriously, Siedlecki said.

“Every adult has an obligation to prevent child abuse. While protecting the child is part of the mission of SRS, preventing child abuse and neglect is part of everyone’s responsibility,” Siedlecki said. “No child deserves to be put through the trauma like they were in Pennsylvania.”

By Christine Metz

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