REPORTING CHILD ABUSE: WHAT IS YOUR LEGAL OBLIGATION?

by James W. McNew October, 2012

The criminal case against Jerry Sandusky has renewed nationwide attention on the issue of child abuse. While tragically there were many victims of Sandusky's abuse, one issue that has also been in public focus in the case is whether the number of victims would have been substantially reduced if there had been proper reporting of Sandusky's suspected abuse early on. The most notable context in which this discussion has taken place involves the situation of Mike McQueary, the former assistant football coach at Penn State.

As you will recall, it was McQueary who was the only eyewitness to any of the allegations made against Sandusky, and yet he was not charged for failing to report. McQueary stated both before and during Sandusky's criminal trial that, in 2002, he witnessed Sandusky engage in inappropriate sexual activity with a minor. McQueary then stated that after he witnessed the abuse he reported what he saw to Penn State officials - one of whom was in charge of the campus police. McQueary therefore complied with Pennsylvania law, as it existed at the time, by reporting the abuse in this manner. Unfortunately, no action was taken by those to whom he reported, and the sexual abuse by Sandusky continued and the coverup began.

Each state has laws requiring certain people to report concerns of child abuse and neglect. While some states require all people to report their concerns, many states identify specific professionals as "mandated reporters." Mandated reporters include social workers, medical and mental health professionals, teachers, and childcare providers. Usually, specific procedures are provided for mandated reporters to make referrals to chid protective services.

Indiana law provides that any individual who has reason to believe a child is a victim of abuse or neglect has the duty to report the suspected abuse. Therefore, each citizen of Indiana is essentially a "mandated reporter." Indiana citizens who suspect that a child is a victim of abuse or neglect are required to notify child protective services or in the alternative to report the concerns to the police. In the case of "mandated reporters" who are professionals (those referenced above), their requirement is to make a report directly to child protective services and not to the police.

Another part of Indiana law requires all individuals to report directly to child protective services if the person committing the abuse or neglect is either a parent or guardian of the child. In all other cases, except for the "mandated professionals", a citizen can fulfill his or her legal requirement by reporting to the police. In Indiana, a person who "knowingly" fails to make a report of suspected child abuse or negligence commits a Class B Misdemeanor. If convicted, that person faces up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000.00 fine.

Indiana law is like or similar to the laws of most states. However, the Jerry Sandusky case has caused legislators nationwide to review state statutes towards closing some of the reporting loopholes that exist in the way these laws are written. In October this year, the State of Florida passed what many consider to be the most strict reporting law in the nation. This new law was a direct result of the Penn State tragedy and was designed to close the loopholes currently found in most states' current laws.

Not only does Florida's new law make it mandatory for each citizen to report suspected abuse directly to child protective services, but it also makes failure to do so a felony. The law further addresses the responsibilities of colleges and universities who fail to report or prevent another person from doing so. The Florida law establishes a centralized hotline for reporting, thus making each individual responsible for making a report directly to child protective services. Effectively, the Florida law has eliminated third party involvement under existing law and has put the responsibility solely upon the individual to report directly to child protective services.

The new Florida legislation has been heralded throughout the nation as a model for other states to implement. Soon, I would expect Indiana to revise its current law to more fully be in line with what Florida has now passed in order to insure the use of centralized direct reporting, increased penalties for failing to report, and provisions specifically regarding colleges and universities.

If you should become a witness to the abuse or neglect of a child, or you suspect that a child is being abused or neglected and you are uncertain how to proceed, please contact us to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys. We can provide you with advice and assistance in making certain that you properly fulfill your obligation to report. It is most important for the welfare of the child who is or may be a victim of abuse or neglect that you fulfill your reporting obligations.