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Child Abuse: Broader Mandated Reporting Laws

on December 4, 2011

http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/section/6/article/60074/

Local officials support broader sex abuse reporting law

State includes 16 categories of professionals required to report suspicions

By Patrick Stoker

POSTED: December 3, 2011 11:53 p.m

In the wake of the Penn State child abuse scandal in which school officials failed to inform law enforcement, child advocates and local law officials believe Georgia’s mandatory reporting laws need to be broadened.

In recent weeks, the prolific Penn State football program has been rocked amid allegations that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky molested children over a 15-year period, and that school officials who were aware of the alleged wrongdoings failed to notify authorities.

Legendary Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno was fired following the allegations against Sandusky. Though he has been cleared of wrongdoing, Paterno has received backlash for not doing more to alert police.

The situation led Georgia lawmakers to take a closer look at the state’s requirements for reporting suspicions of possible child sex abuse.

Currently, Georgia law requires doctors and medical personnel, as well as school teachers and administrators to report such suspicions. But most church officials and coaches do not fall under the requirement.

Piedmont Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brad Smith said required reporting laws are unique because they incorporate failure to follow through.

“These are the only laws that I know of that we require someone to do something. Most laws require you not to do something,” Smith said.

The state law includes 16 categories of professionals required to report suspicions of child sex abuse. Failure to do so can result in a misdemeanor conviction punishable by up to one year in prison.

People who assume temporary custody of children, such as coaches, baby sitters and camp counselors, don’t qualify as mandatory reporters.

Because the victims are children, Smith said required reporting laws should be broadened to ensure future cases of child abuse are prevented.

“We have victims that can’t speak up for themselves, so we have to for children,” he said.

Smith said people or organizations that focus largely on children should fall under the mandatory reporting category. That would include caretakers and camp counselors.

He said law officials must protect children from predators in the same way authorities conduct counterterrorism operations.

“You need to know the enemy and what they’re targeting,” Smith said.

“When you talk about predators and children, that’s the areas they’re targeting. They’re looking for wherever children are grouped together with less adult supervision.”

Nancy Chandler, CEO of the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy, said many states already require all adults, regardless of affiliation, to report suspicions of child sex abuse. She said Georgia should follow those states’ lead.

“We all really do have this need to protect the kids,” she said. “You would think that people could just use their common sense, but obviously that’s not the case.”

Many opponents disagree with requiring clergy members to report child sex abuse suspicions because people would no longer be able to remain confident in church. But for that exact reason, Chandler said clergy members should be mandated reporters.

“I definitely think they should be because very often when there is something going on, that’s where someone goes is to their clergy person,” she said.

But others don’t believe there’s any reason to change the current statute because it already incorporates most adults.

Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brian Rickman said a change to the law wouldn’t make a difference because anyone who fails to report child sex abuse probably still wouldn’t if it were required.

“The instances where I have seen there be a problem in cases is not that the laws we have aren’t good enough, but because the people just weren’t following them,” Rickman said.

“If a human being knows about chid molestation and decides not to report it — if you’re that morally bankrupt, no law is going to make you change your mind.”

All teachers and administrators within Hall County and Gainesville City Schools are required to comply with the mandatory reporting laws. Although some coaches are not considered teachers and therefore are not mandatory reporters under state law, school officials still require suspicions to be reported.

“If we even suspect abuse … all 3,400 of our employees are required to report that to their immediate supervisor,” said Will Schofield, Hall County Schools superintendent.

“Coaches have that exact same expectation. Of course, 95 percent of our coaches are teachers and they’re on our payroll, but if you’re going to work with us, that would be an expectation.”

Gainesville City Schools also make all faculty aware that any suspicions must be reported. That includes any sort of abuse including emotional, medical, sexual or physical.

The schools use a chain of command when reporting suspicions of abuse. Teachers are required to notify a counselor or administrator who would then submit a written report to the Department of Family and Children Services.

Jerod Anderson, director of learning support and social worker for Gainesville City Schools, said child abuse cases occur about every two weeks.

“In some of our schools I’ve heard reports going out on a pretty frequent basis,” he said.

But many times suspected abuse cases turn out to be just an accident. Still, Anderson said no risks can be taken.

“You can’t really make those judgement calls too much. If you don’t report something that looked minor but ends up being something more, you’re going to find yourself in a pinch,” he said.

Background checks are done on all school employees including volunteer coaches.

“The protocols are in place the same for (volunteers) as it is for employees and they are always under supervision of a certified teacher,” said Merrianne Dyer, Gainesville schools superintendent.

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