Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect: Who Is Responsible?
Brown, Rashida, Policy & Practice
The child abuse allegations on the campus of Pennsylvania State University that hit national news in November shook the public tremendously. It raised the eyebrows of concerned citizens wondering who's most at fault and what can be done to make sure this situation never happens again. Individuals eager to point the finger at those involved have had to stop and think about what new policies should be in place to ensure better protection for all children, not just those who become victims of sexual abuse by prominent and well-known individuals of high stature. In looking at the events of the Penn State scandal from a more comprehensive lens and the reactions of many Americans, it was clear that the general public has had to ponder how they would have handled the situation if they were witnesses of the abuse. They've had to ask themselves who they would have called to report the crime - would it be law enforcement, university officials, or child protection services? Some have said that law enforcement should have done a better job at intervening. Others have said that institutions of higher learning should have clearer standards in place for professionals working with children or young adults. The rest have asked what position child welfare took in the matter.
Nonetheless, it raised the need to have more public awareness in the broader community for adults to be more informed on how to identify suspected abuse and neglect of children and how best to respond. Skeptics have questioned whether Congress can fix the problem through legislation and if enforcing more rigid standards on states would eliminate acts of abuse altogether.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires that all states have laws on child abuse and neglect and policies and procedures in place for mandated reporters. After similar allegations on other campuses surfaced and in response to the media uproar, some state legislatures have amended state laws on mandated reporters to clarify "school professionals" by including "professionals working in institutions of higher learning" in their definition. Eighteen states, including Pennsylvania, have adopted laws that extend the definition of mandated reporter beyond the typical child-serving professionals - medical professionals, clergy, teachers, social workers, child care providers - by requiring all adults to be responsible for reporting suspected abuse and neglect. Though agencies, organizations, and institutions have the power to enforce background checks on workers, institute licensing standards on facilities, develop training modules on reporting child abuse and neglect, and provide support for professionals, one would have to ask - how can all adults receive the proper guidance on the topic if legislation requires them to be mandated reporters of abuse and neglect? And who would be penalized should these adults fail to act?
Last fall, various members of Congress who are known as champions of children's issues introduced bills to address gaps in the system and pose federal mandates on states to improve the safety and protection of children vulnerable to sexual predators. On November 17, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced the State Children's Protection Act (S. 1887). This measure would require all states to enact legislation and implement policies mandating any person who knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, or has observed any child being subjected to child abuse or neglect to immediately report the crime to child protective services or a local law enforcement agency. In addition, the law must specify that persons, institutions, or agencies required to report abuse and neglect that act on good faith would be immune from civil or criminal penalty. Mandated reporters who act in bad faith would suffer criminal or civil action. States that do not meet this requirement within a year will face a penalty and be required to forfeit the ability to reserve up to 10 percent of their federal grants used for crime control activities. …