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Missouri legislation would broaden child abuse reporting

Updated: 2013-03-30T12:26:17Z

By Nancy Cambria

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

— Years before Jerry Sandusky was charged with a crime, an employee at Penn State University said he witnessed him sexually assaulting a boy in a shower in a team locker room and told his boss.

But as news reports and a formal inquiry later revealed, that boss, Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno, and others up the university's chain of command did not report the incident to police or state child abuse investigators. And the employee — building his own coaching career under Paterno — remained silent.

That scandal prompted review nationwide of how crimes against children are reported. Now that scrutiny has made its way into a second year of proposed legislation to revise Missouri's mandatory reporting laws for child abuse.

One Senate proposal wants to make anyone 18 and older who witnesses the sexual assault of a child a “mandatory reporter,” meaning the witness would be breaking the law if he or she failed to call authorities. The measure has had a lukewarm reception among child abuse prevention advocates who believe it would have minimal impact. But it also has some adamant supporters, including a Boone County prosecutor.

The other measure, a Missouri House bill, has full support of groups such as Missouri Kids First, a child abuse and neglect prevention group, and a state task force on child sexual assault prevention that met last year.

Instead of widening the net of those who must report child abuse, the House bill would shore up the accountability of current mandatory reporters such as teachers. In most cases it would require a person who directly witnesses probable child abuse or neglect to immediately call the state child abuse hotline in the Missouri Children's Division.

It would eliminate a current option that allows the witness to instead tell a superior who would then, in theory, make the hotline call. The bill further would forbid an institution to begin its own internal investigation before making a hotline call. And it would protect employees who make hotline calls from retribution.

Proponents argue the changes would better prevent an incident of child abuse from falling through the cracks. They also would help deter leaders of an institution such as a school or a camp or youth sports league from remaining silent to ward off unwanted attention.

“We want the Children's Division to be overseeing these investigations and not schools, because we have seen too many cases where schools have competing interests that are sometimes hard to understand,” said Emily van Schenkhof of Missouri Kids First. “We have seen schools and other institutions that have put the interest of their own schools above the children.”

The bill so far has had limited opposition. Otto Fajen, legislative director for the Missouri National Education Association, said schools applaud the measure because it promotes a whistle blower status for employees.

But he said educators want to make sure the bill is detailed enough to create a school-wide culture that enables teachers and staff to fulfill their reporting obligations. He said the measure needs to respect the abilities of school counselors trained in detecting child abuse, and it must give teachers support to be able to leave the classroom immediately and make the hotline call.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-south St. Louis County, said she was motivated by Penn State and her own daughter. Her daughter, a former teacher at a St. Louis charter school, had witnessed a parent severely beating a child with a belt just before the start of the school day, Haefner said.

The daughter told the school's principal but found out the next day that a hotline call had not been made.

“It turned out that child was let to go home with that parent,” Haefner said. “My daughter was just so taken back by that. That someone could decide up the chain of command, ‘Mmm, we're not going to deal with this.’ ”

Van Schenkhof said the bill was drafted after consulting with child advocacy centers statewide. The child advocates said that getting rid of the ability to boot the problem up the chain of command would have the strongest impact for children, she said.

As the law stands now, “It allows the person to put the blame on someone else when it really is on the individual,” van Schenkhof said.

Kelly Schultz, director of the Missouri Office of Child Advocate, said the current system of reporting up the chain of command had unintended consequences, even when it resulted in a hotline call.

When a teacher reports an incident to a supervisor, the child is often re-interviewed, giving the child the opportunity to recant when he or she senses that a parent or relative could be in trouble. Sometimes the child discloses another event, but it sounds as if he or she is telling two different stories. What results, Schultz said, is a watered-down hotline call or investigations with conflicting accounts that can make it difficult to substantiate abuse or press criminal charges.

“That is why we would prefer someone who is trained in evaluating children, including child advocacy centers,” she said. “Because they are not adding padded questions.”

Amid a national call to ramp-up mandatory reporting laws, there are groups in child welfare that have protested the move, arguing it's a knee-jerk reaction to Penn State.

In a position paper, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform argued that expanding the pool of mandatory reporters to include any adult would flood state child protection offices with calls that don't meet the most minimal standards of abuse, leaving child safety “workers even less time to find children in real danger.”

The organization noted that child abuse investigations are already traumatic for children and families. A law that opens the door to more unnecessary invasions of privacy, including physical exams and family separations, is detrimental to children.

Some proponents are backing the more far-reaching proposal by Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, to make any witness of a child sexual assault a mandatory reporter. About 20 states nationwide have similar laws on the books. Dan Knight, the Boone County prosecuting attorney, said the torture and murder of 2-year-old Cortez Johnson in 2008 was a wake-up call for him that reporting rules need to be as strong and inclusive as possible.

Knight said two people had seen Cortez whimpering and naked in the corner of his parents' home, his hands, wrists and mouth bound with duct tape, and did nothing. Ten days later the toddler died of blunt head trauma. Medical reports concluded that the child had been beaten and burned repeatedly and had received more than 200 injuries, some of them disfiguring, over a period of months.

Knight said the child had never been to the doctor, and was not yet school-age, so he had no contact with mandatory reporters. Under the proposed legislation, the onus would be on everyone to make sure children such as Cortez do not fall through the cracks, he said.

“Had the mother not brought the boy to the emergency room on the day he died, we might not have ever found out about this,” Knight said. “I know how incredibly important it is for people to report abuse, because I know what can happen as a result.”

The Senate bill is SB113. The House bill is HB505.

©2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, www.stltoday.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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