Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect: What Does the “Penn State Scandal” Tell Us About Our Laws and Values?

CFCC’s Director is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University. Joe Paterno was her graduation speaker. That said, like the rest of the country, all of us at CFCC are horrified as we watch more and more shocking details come out in charges of sexual abuse committed by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. It is perhaps just as disturbing that, if the allegations are true, there were many people who could have, and should have, put a stop to it.

One of the most troubling aspects of this story is the fact that so many people believed that abuse was occurring and did not intervene and report it to the authorities. Unfortunately, the truth is that while progress is being made, we still live in a culture where child abuse is “taboo.” Even trained professionals – teachers, school social workers, doctors – sometimes face internal resistance when reporting what they believe is abuse, especially if the alleged abuser is someone with power over them. Without solid evidence (or even when it happens in front of our eyes), Americans do not want to pry into the private lives of our neighbors, co-workers, students, or clients, and we tend to downplay what we know – especially if we could lose a job over reporting the behavior.

It is critically important that we as a nation and within our communities re-evaluate our attitudes toward the issues of child abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, rape, and more. We should take the time to learn the law and to consider our responsibility to protect innocent victims of the “private” but devastating crimes that occur all too often.

Under Pennsylvania law (23 Pa.C.S. § 6311), anyone who works in a public agency or works with children and has “reasonable cause to suspect” that child abuse or neglect has occurred in relation to their employment must report it to their organization head or his designee. The head of the organization then is required to report to authorities, but only one report needs to be made from each institution.

In the Penn State case, Mike McQueary (the graduate student witness) and Joe Paterno (the coaching legend to whom McQueary went with the information) seemingly both fulfilled their legal obligations by informing the athletic director and University Vice President Gary Schultz. Mr. Schultz violated the law when he decided not to investigate the allegations or report them to child protective services. Was he more concerned with prestige than the fates of countless young boys? As Joe Paterno said, with the benefit of hindsight and knowing the consequences, he believes he should have done more. Most of us feel passionately that he and Mr. McQueary should have protected those boys. In the moment, however, how many of us might have acted the same way– saved our job and our legacy by reporting it, as required by law, to our superior, trusting the “system,” and washing our hands of the disturbing situation? As a community and a nation, we should aspire to be better than that.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has argued that Pennsylvania law needs to be changed to require anyone within an organization to report abuse to the police or the child protective agency when they see it, instead of requiring only the head of the organization to make the report. He believes that the benefits of efficiency are outweighed by the risk that the organization head will drop the ball and that others who could have prevented abuse will not do so. At a minimum, state law must protect those employees who do report suspected abuse. If such policies had been in place in Pennsylvania – or even within the Pennsylvania State University – any of the several employees who allegedly witnessed or heard accounts of child abuse might have come forward and thereby have prevented years of abuse by Sandusky.

We at CFCC agree that changing laws to ensure that more effective reporting measures are in place would be a major step in the right direction. Under Maryland law, anyone who has reason to believe a child has been abused must notify the local Department of Social Services or law enforcement agency and professionals working with children must also report to their organization head (Md. Fam. Law § 5-704 and § 5-705). The state of Maryland also has begun reviewing its child abuse reporting laws to make sure they are designed to best protect abuse victims. Criminalizing a failure to report in clear cases of abuse could be a valuable protection, although, as a recent Baltimore Sun article has pointed out, such a change may lead to unintended consequences. We at CFCC believe that this kind of evaluation and discussion are critical to protect our children. We hope to be part of an ongoing discussion long after the media ceases to cover the Penn State tragedy.

Along with changes in the law, we need to organize as communities to educate the public about our legal and moral duties to protect abuse victims. Policymakers must take a firm stance that abuse is not a “private” problem but a community crisis that must be addressed at every instance and at every level. How often do horrific incidents of child abuse occur yet not receive national news coverage? Let us make children’s health and safety a national priority. Let us ensure that we always act with the courage, the wisdom, and the “hindsight” that Joe Paterno wishes he had.

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