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Editorial
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Abuse and the law

The scandal engulfing Penn State's football program over charges that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted boys as young as 10 for more than a decade, and that his superiors did nothing to stop the abuse, has sickened Americans far beyond western Pennsylvania. If officials at what was reputed to be the cleanest of college football programs could be so blind, could this sort of abuse be ignored or tolerated elsewhere? It's no wonder, then, that revulsion over what happened in Pennsylvania has prompted calls in Maryland and elsewhere to toughen child abuse reporting laws.

Yet if the goal is to prevent a similar tragedy from happening here, lawmakers need to proceed cautiously on proposals to criminalize the failure to report child abuse. While toughening the state's reporting requirement might give people who witness or suspect child abuse an additional incentive to come forward, it could also have unintended consequences that make matters even worse.

Maryland's child abuse reporting law is stronger than Pennsylvania's in that it requires educators, health practitioners, social service workers and police officers to report suspected child abuse to local authorities and to their bosses. At Penn State, a graduate assistant in the athletic department and a school janitor have said they witnessed separate incidents in which they saw Mr. Sandusky sexually abusing a child. Both men reported the incidents to their superiors.

Those officials — among them Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, who was fired by the university last week after the scandal broke — never passed that information on to local police, however. Their failure to act would have constituted a violation under Maryland law, though not in Pennsylvania. But even in Maryland, violators can't be prosecuted when the law is not followed. Most states not only require anyone who witnesses child abuse to report it but classify the failure to report as a criminal misdemeanor or felony.

There's certainly a compelling case to be made for adding criminal penalties to Maryland's child abuse reporting law, as recently suggested by state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican. For one, it would send a clear message that those who witness abuse and fail to report it — or worse, deliberately cover it up — are culpable, not just those who actually commit such crimes. It might also give people who would rather not get involved in the messy process of a child abuse investigation a reason to overcome their reluctance to implicate a neighbor, acquaintance or family member. Such people could tell themselves they had no choice but to act or face criminal prosecution themselves. Given that 90 percent of child victims are abused by people they know, that could be a powerful incentive for witnesses to step forward.

Yet there's no evidence that states that attach criminal penalties to the failure to report child abuse have lower rates of abuse than states that don't. On the contrary, criminalizing the failure to report carries its own troubling risks. The threat of prosecution could inundate authorities with a flood of spurious reports that overwhelm investigators and make it even more difficult to identify those children who are truly in danger. Given that two-thirds of abuse reports are ultimately found to be unsubstantiated, some child advocates argue that the last thing the system needs is for more people to report their suspicions just for the sake of making sure they are protected from criminal liability in case abuse is actually occurring.

Moreover, abuse investigations are inherently traumatic for children. They often involve hours of intensive questioning about sensitive issues of sexuality, shame and guilt as well as intrusive physical examinations that frighten and humiliate suspected victims. The stress brought on by such procedures can leave lasting emotional and psychological scars even on children who turn out not to have suffered abuse.

That is why many experts believe educating children about how to avoid predators and teaching parents to be comfortable talking with their children when potential problems arise is more effective in preventing child abuse than passing more laws. They point out that additional laws, however tough they may be, are unlikely to change behavior and that what is needed is a broader public dialogue about abuse that strengthens families' ability to keep their children safe and helps victims talk about their trauma.

Child sexual abuse like that revealed by the scandal at Penn State — the "Happy Valley" that turned out to be anything but — is a serious problem in the United States. Some estimates suggest as many as one out of every six boys and one of every three girls may be at risk of becoming victims before adulthood. And virtually all experts agree that victims of childhood abuse suffer lifelong psychological and emotional damage that is impossible to reverse. Maryland lawmakers need to weigh carefully all the potential benefits and risks before jumping to the conclusion that there's a quick fix that will protect children from those who prey on innocents. Above all, they should not automatically assume that simply adding criminal penalties to the state's child abuse reporting law will make the problem go away.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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