Lawmakers asked Tuesday whether all adults—not just people who work closely with children—should be legally obligated to report incidents of child abuse to law-enforcement or child-welfare authorities.
“I think it’s ultimately about holding adults accountable,” said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Penn., at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions subcommittee hearing. The hearing was arranged in part in response to the Penn State sex-abuse scandal.
Casey has introduced legislation--co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.-- that would require states to expand mandatory reporting requirements to include all adults to qualify for federal funding for child-abuse prevention and treatment.
Expert witnesses at the hearing agreed that protecting children should be a community responsibility. However, they also warned that Casey’s legislation would create new needs: well-crafted educational programs that would teach all adults to identify and report suspected cases of child abuse; more resources for state welfare and law-enforcement agencies, to help them expand their capacity to respond to abuse claims; and flexibility at the state level, so that officials can address child abuse on a case-by-case basis.
The shadow of the Penn State scandal hung over the hearing, and the discussion largely focused on the sexual abuse of children. Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is accused of sexually abusing eight young boys over 15 years. Prosecutors allege that the abuse was known by university officials and that officials neither took steps to stop Sandusky nor took the information to the police.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Children and Families Subcommittee, said that many cases of child abuse go unreported because children are afraid or unable to speak up, because the adults they turn to don’t listen, or both. “We want to break that code of silence,” she said.
“This senator takes the position that no institution should ever be too big to report or too famous to report, and no adult should ever feel that they’re protected by the brand that they represent," Mikulski added.
Former National Hockey League player Sheldon Kennedy—who was abused by his youth hockey coach as a child—testified that children usually have to tell multiple adults that they are being mistreated before somebody takes them seriously.
“All 50 states have laws requiring mandatory reporting of child abuse,” said Michelle Collins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But only 18 states require all adults to report abuse, she said. Most states require law-enforcement officials and professionals who work closely with children to pay attention to signs of abuse and neglect, and report them to either child-welfare services or the police.
There were more than 867,000 reported cases of child maltreatment in the United States in 2010, among them 63,527 cases of sexual abuse, according to the Health and Human Services Department. But Collins said that the numbers are probably much higher: Not only do an estimated two-thirds of child-abuse cases go unreported, but HHS gathers information only from state child-protection agencies. A Justice Department study estimated that 285,400 children are sexually assaulted each year, Collins said.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said that lawmakers had a choice between casting “a wide net, or a narrow net”—that is, between either broadening reporting requirements to include more adults, or deepening education or reporting requirements for those who work closely with kids.
Even among professionals legally bound to report crimes of child abuse or neglect, many don’t know how to identify abuse, or hesitate to act on their suspicions, said Frank Cervone, who heads the Support Center for Child Advocates, a Philadelphia legal organization. And child-abuse cases often require a nuanced response. “Not every family needs a hammer. Some of them need the velvet glove,” Cervone said.
Many professionals fear the consequences of reporting suspected abuse—which might involve a child being separated from her parents, or the launch of an expensive and time-consuming court case, said Robert Block, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Both state law-enforcement and child-welfare agencies are already struggling to manage the volume of child-abuse allegations, said Erin Sullivan Sutton, an official from the Minnesota Human Services Department. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act “does not account for the expenses associated with assessing reports of maltreatment,” she noted.
Both better data collection and more interagency cooperation are needed at the state and federal level, experts said. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., pointed out that it can be difficult to prosecute child-abuse cases across state lines, because different states have different laws and standards.
“There’s another theme in the Penn State case that should not be unnoticed,” Cervone said: The moms who listened to their children, believed them, and spoke up.