Saturday, November 12, 2011

Even suspicion of sex abuse must be reported, Florida experts say in wake of Penn State scandal

By Jane Musgrave and Ana M. Valdes

As federal officials this week continue to investigate whether Penn State University failed to report incidents of alleged sexual abuse on campus as mandated by federal law, many child advocates in Florida are hailing a state statute that requires professionals such as school personnel, to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to law enforcement.

But the law, which specifies teachers, doctors, child care workers and other professionals must report abuse, has let to few penalties for those who don't follow it in Palm Beach County, according to records from the State Attorney's Office.

Only two people have been charged for failing to report abuse since 1999, while 37 have been prosecuted for falsely reporting abuse, records show.

Statewide, the Florida Department of Children and Families doesn't keep track of cases where people were penalized for failing to report abuse, "but we are not aware of great numbers of prosecutions," DCF spokesman Joe Follick said.

"Obviously, (the law) is not a heavy-handed effort by the state to penalize anyone who might accidentally not have the judgment to report (abuse), but I think it is an indication of how seriously the Florida legislature and Floridians understand the responsibility of everyone to make sure that children are safe," Follick said.

Some of the law's supporters, however, agree that regardless of few prosecutions for potential violators, Florida Statute 39.205 holds many professionals accountable for keeping children safe. And had such a state law been in force in Pennsylvania -- something state officials there now are considering -- it could have averted crimes and brought offenders to justice sooner, Florida expertsay.

Former prosecutor Scott Cupp, who ran the Crimes Against Children Unit in the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, said such a law could could been used to charge all the Penn State officials who knew about former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's alleged sex abuse of boys.

While federal law ultimately was brought to bear on Sandusky, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services specifies that primary responsibility for child welfare services rests with the states.

"McQueary, McQueary's father, Paterno, Spanier, Curley," Cupp said, ticking off the names of the high-level Penn State officials who were alerted, according to a grand jury report that accused Sandusky of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period.

Since the release of the report, Penn State's head football coach Joe Paterno was criticized for not doing more to stop the alleged abuse. He was particularly scolded for how he handled an alleged 2002 incident at the university's football complex, in which then-graduate assistant and current assistant coach Mike McQueary told Paterno that he saw Sandusky assaulting a boy in the showers.

Paterno notified the athletic director, Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz, who in turn notified university President Graham Spanier. Paterno and Spanier were fired Wednesday, and Curley and Schultz have been charged with perjury and failing to report the incident to authorities.

Although Paterno is not a target of the criminal investigation, Pennsylvania's police commissioner called his failure to contact police himself a lapse in "moral responsibility."

Cupp, who often spoke to local health care workers and educators about their responsibilities under Florida law, said he would always specify they should not just report abuse to a superior, but call the Department of Children and Familes' Child Abuse Hotline.

"You both call it in," he said. "What's the worst that could happen? We spent two dimes."

In addition, he said, using a teacher as an example, there's no way of knowing what's going on behind the scenes. "For all you know, the assistance principal and the perp are drinking buddies."

Lake Worth attorney Betty Resch, who also led the Crimes Against Children unit in the 1990s, agreed that Paterno had a legal obligation to call police when told Sandusky had been seen having sex with a young boy in a university shower.

"I think he did the right thing by going to his superiors," she said. "But he should have followed up. It should have been so disturbing to him that he should have followed up, to want to find out what was happening and how the school was handling it."

In Florida, all residents, not just "professionally mandated reporters" such as teachers and hospital workers -- are required to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect to the Department of Children and Families' Florida Abuse Hotline, said department spokesperson Joe Follick. (The hotline number is 800-962-2873.)

In fiscal year 2010-2011, the hotline received 313,307 calls, according to DCF records. The slightest suspicion warrants a call, even if the reporter did not hear about the alleged abuse directly from the victim, Follick said. "It can be anyone who has knowledge or suspicion of this," he said. "You can say, 'well that creates more work,' but we would always rather err on the side of having too many calls come in than not enough."

A lawyer for Schultz, the ousted Penn State vice president, said he will seek to have the reporting charge dismissed because the mandated reporting rules only apply to those who come into direct contact with children.

On the heels of the Penn State sex scandal, legislators in Pennsylvania have said they would introduce legislation to strengthen mandatory reporting laws in child abuse cases. State Rep. Kevin Boyle says he will introduce a bill that would require mandated reporters to notify police themselves rather than pass their information on to superiors at work.

"It is clear that a loophole exists in our law," Boyle told The Associated Press. "My legislation would close that loophole, by requiring those who are aware of the abuse to report it to law enforcement authorities, rather than simply following an in-house chain of command."

For Cupp, the former Palm Beach County prosecutor, Florida's law offers a safety net for young victims of abuse by specifically identifying mandatory reporters. "The statute in Florida accepts, anticipates and encourages redundant reporting," Cupp said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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