The Moral Obligation to Report The Sexual Abuse of Children

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Dr. Rebecca PetersenIn the wake of the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal, many people are asking why it has taken so long for the public to hear about this.

People also are asking why it was not reported to authorities, mainly the police, earlier.

One question, especially, comes to the surface. In 2002, then graduate assistant football coach Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed a sexual assault against a 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower by Jerry Sandusky, the man accused of molesting eight boys over the course of 15 years. In grand jury testimony McQueary said he spoke to his father and then head football coach Joe Paterno about the incident. In recent days, however, he has asserted in an email that he also contacted the police. Right now, at least, it is not clear if he reported it to law enforcement.

However, this episode is a forceful reminder that one should be mindful of who has the moral, ethical and/or legal obligation to report child abuse to authorities. Each state and the District of Columbia has statutes identifying mandatory reporters of child abuse (such as, physicians, medical and child welfare personnel, nurses, licensed psychologists, professional counselors, and school teachers and administrators) and the circumstances under which they are required to make a report and to a certain extent, the consequences for failing to report.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families, failure to report child abuse by those mandated to do so is a misdemeanor in 39 states. It is a felony in three states. Most states, however, do not specify penalties associated with failing to report. Eighteen states require any person who witnesses child abuse to report it while many states specify this for only certain professionals, such as some of the ones mentioned above. HHS also finds that 17 states require reporting specifically to law enforcement.

So, only certain people have the legal obligation to report abuse or suspected abuse, and it is not clear if those required to report instances of abuse are mandated to report it to law enforcement. Such inconsistencies and lack of clarity create confusion about mandatory reporting.

On Sunday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett stated that new laws are needed to ensure reports of child sexual abuse are made to the proper government authorities, that is, the police or a state’s child protective agency. Similarly, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez from (D-N.J.) announced Tuesday plans to introduce the Child Abuse Reporting Enforcement (CARE) Act. This would require states to mandate the reporting of child abuse to law enforcement and/or child protective services in order to receive federal social services funding, and to make it a felony for any individual who fails to report such abuse. The senator’s bill also would specify that all witnesses report abuse to the law enforcement authorities and child protective services.

We can assume that states will follow suit as this is currently at the forefront of America’s consciousness and their appears to be limited uniformity and consistency of laws governing child abuse reporting, even for those not legally mandated to report abuse.

Many people are afraid to “get involved” in people’s business, especially regarding family issues. They are afraid of conflict or retaliation, especially if the case was investigated and the abuse was unfounded. This is understandable, absolutely. However, didn’t that person do his/her part by reporting it to the police or social service agency?

I thought we were all fighting for the best interests of our nation’s children, not ourselves.  If you suspect child abuse or even witnessed it but don’t want to “get involved,” please go find a pay phone, call 911 and report the abuse. That way your anonymity will be more ensured than by using your phone.

Regardless, I would like to offer the following: Each semester in all of my criminal justice classes, I spend quite a bit of time discussing child sexual abuse. I ask my students, “Who has to report child abuse?” Most of them state those already mentioned above. I let them finish, then go up to each one of them and say, “YOU are required to report suspected child abuse.”

The question of who has a moral or ethical obligation is moot.

We ALL do.


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