Missouri bill would enact punishments for failure to report sexual abuse

ST. LOUIS | A Missouri senator has proposed legislation that would require anyone who witnesses child sexual abuse to report it to authorities.

Sen. Eric Schmitt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his proposed legislation would make failing to report child sex abuse a misdemeanor with a punishment of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"This is a very measured approach," said Schmitt, a Glendale Republican. "This doesn't deal with suspected abuse. It is tailored only to actual sexual abuse that is witnessed."

Currently only teachers, physicians, the clergy and members of certain other professions are required to report suspected child abuse under state law.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster called for the Legislature to expand the mandatory reporting requirements to all after the controversy this fall at Pennsylvania State University. Several university officials have been criticized for not telling police after another assistant football coach said he saw retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in the showers with a boy. Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over more than a decade. He has denied the allegations and is awaiting trial.

Koster, a Democrat, praised Schmitt for filing the Missouri legislation. Koster said that as of April 2010, laws in 18 states require all citizens to report suspected abuse or neglect of children. The two state officials planned a meeting to discuss the legislation.

"If a citizen walks in on the sexual abuse of a child, his duty as a citizen should be clear. We are all mandatory reporters," Koster said. "When it comes to protecting children, passing the buck should not be an option in our state.

However, opponents contend that the measure might not be needed. Missouri has a child abuse and neglect hotline that anyone can use to report suspected child abuse.

"Those who would see a child being sexually abused and decide not to report it won't be compelled to do so just because of a new state law," said Clark Peters, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri school of social work.

In addition, Peters said expanding the mandatory reporting requirements could create confusion about what must be reported and fuel a rash of cases that must be reviewed. He said that could lead to unwarranted investigations that cause legitimate reports to be overlooked.

"Solutions to rare problems often cause unintended harms, no matter how well-intended," Peters said.