JEFFERSON CITY • Responding to the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, a St. Louis County lawmaker has drafted legislation that would require anyone who witnesses sexual abuse to report it to authorities.
Current state law requires members of professions that deal directly with children — such as teachers, physicians and clergy — to report suspected abuse. State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, plans to push for passage of a bill that would expand the so-called "mandated reporter" law to include any person — regardless of profession — who observes a child being subjected to sexual abuse.
The key to the change, Schmitt said, is that it focuses only on those who witness sexual abuse firsthand.
"This is a very measured approach," Schmitt said. "This doesn't deal with suspected abuse. It is tailored only to actual sexual abuse that is witnessed, just like the situation at Penn State."
The idea to expand the mandated reporter law was first floated this month by Attorney General Chris Koster. He said the incidents at Penn State, where former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with molesting young boys over a number of years, highlight the disparities across the country in how state laws handle reporting sexual abuse of children. A Penn State assistant football coach testified that in 2002, he witnessed Sandusky molesting a young boy in the shower and that it was reported to school officials.
The incident was never reported to law enforcement.
"This is a very reasonable proposal that was sparked by what happened at Penn State," Koster said. "That incident began a national conversation about mandated reporter laws."
Koster praised Schmitt for taking the initiative to sponsor the bill. The two have not yet discussed the proposed legislation, but a meeting has been scheduled, Schmitt said.
But some critics say the idea amounts to a knee-jerk reaction to the Penn State scandal that may not be needed. Clark Peters, an assistant professor in the University of Missouri's School of Social Work, said Koster and Schmitt's idea to change the mandated reporter law focuses on a situation that is incredibly rare.
"You're basically putting together a law that mandates people to do the right thing," he said. "But if you look at the Penn State situation, even if a law like this existed in Pennsylvania, it would not have compelled the actors to do anything differently."
Anyone can already report abuse of a child by using the state's child abuse and neglect hotline, Peters said.
"And those who would see a child being sexually abused and decide not to report it won't be compelled to do so just because of a new state law," he said.
Additionally, expanding the law could lead to confusion about what people are mandated to report, Peters said, creating a situation where individuals believe they are legally compelled to report any suspicion of abuse of a child. Those reports would lead to an incredibly invasive investigation, even if the suspicion of abuse proves to be untrue. Those unwarranted investigations could lead to legitimate reports of abuse getting overlooked.
"Solutions to rare problems often cause unintended harms, no matter how well-intended," he said.
This is just a matter of elected officials wanting to act in the face of a tragedy, Peters said. "I can appreciate that."
David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — or SNAP — said he believes changing the law wouldn't have much impact.
"It's rare that someone actually witnesses a predator assaulting a child, so we're not confident this proposal would make much difference," said Clohessy, who lives in St. Louis. "Also, sadly, it's very rare that people are actually charged with failing to report suspected abuse. And when they are, the penalties are usually paltry."
A much better reform, Clohessy said, would be for lawmakers to toughen the state's "predator-friendly statute of limitations, which prevents most child sex victims from ever being able to expose predators in court."
Koster said a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 18 states require all individuals to report the suspected abuse or neglect of children.
"If a citizen walks in on the sexual abuse of a child, his duty as a citizen should be clear. We are all mandatory reporters," he said. "When it comes to protecting children, passing the buck should not be an option in our state."
Schmitt said anyone convicted of violating the new law would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
"I think that because this is such a narrowly focused bill, we will be able to get this done pretty quickly during the session," Schmitt said.