Educators, health practitioners, social service workers and police officers are required under Maryland law to report suspected child abuse to local authorities and to their bosses. But the state has no power to prosecute when the law is not followed.
That puts Maryland out of step with the majority of states, most of which classify failure to report abuse as a criminal misdemeanor. Arizona, Florida and Minnesota treat failure to report more serious abuse as a felony.
Following the scandal that has devastated Penn State University, some Maryland lawmakers and child advocates want to establish criminal penalties for failing to report child abuse. Reporting laws are being examined after revelations that alleged sex abuse by a former assistant football coach at Penn State had gone unreported to law enforcement for years.
"The penalties are not severe enough," Chuck Buckler, director of student services for the Maryland State Department of Education, said of Maryland's law. "We're talking about a very serious thing that can be damaging to children for their entire lives."
The issue is not only expected to be debated in next year's General Assembly session — one state lawmaker already plans to introduce a bill to create criminal penalties — but on campuses and at workplaces where there is renewed discussion of what's legally required of people who work with children.
While lawmakers and state officials say they don't believe that blatant child abuse goes unreported very often at schools, universities and care facilities, they say a discussion of tougher penalties is merited. Meanwhile, the state university system says that after the Penn State case, it is looking for any gaps in employee training on the law.
State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, said Maryland can't allow a repeat of the scandal at Penn State, where the university president and legendary football coach Joe Paterno were fired after revelations that suspected child abuse was not reported to law enforcement for a number of years. Assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has been accused of sexually abusing young boys.
"Most people, I think, do the right thing and report abuse when they see it," said Jacobs, who is crafting a bill that that would add criminal penalties and is researching laws in other parts of the country. "But one of the big problems in Pennsylvania was that there was not a real penalty. I want to be fair, but we need a stronger law in Maryland."
The breadth of support for such a bill is unclear.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the issue is worthy of debate but isn't as straightforward as it might seem.
"The case at Penn State is absolutely egregious, and I can't imagine what anyone was thinking," Dumais said. "But egregious circumstances and horrible facts don't always lead to the best laws."
The problem, Dumais said, is that teachers are asked to make judgments about the likelihood of abuse when the circumstances are less clear than they allegedly were at Penn State. She said she would hate to see a teacher face criminal penalties in a case without black-and-white facts.
"I just think that whatever is drafted, we need to be very careful about how it's drafted," she said of potential legislation. "Maybe the penalty would only come in if someone actually witnessed the abuse."
David Lorenz, the Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a group protesting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting in Baltimore on Tuesday, called on Maryland lawmakers to institute "real and severe" punishment for those who fail to report child sex abuse.
Lisae Jordan, general counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that criminal penalties might be warranted against those who have direct knowledge of abuse and do nothing about it. She said she has seen a significant number of such cases, some involving educators.
But she also expressed reservations about a law that could be drawn too broadly. "The devil really is in the details," she said. "We need to make sure that whatever is done actually is designed to help the survivors of abuse."
In that light, she said it also is important to teach children how to identify and report abuse. "We have to speak directly to them," Jordan said.
Harford County State's Attorney Joe Cassilly, speaking on behalf of the state prosecutors' association, said the Penn State scandal has prompted useful discussion about the effectiveness of Maryland's reporting laws. But like Dumais, he urged caution, saying criminal penalties could create unintended consequences.
Sometimes, he said, educators or counselors have good reasons for not rushing to report possible abuse. Perhaps they're trying to retain the confidence of a victim who's reluctant to talk, he said. Cassilly said he would not want to see such professionals subject to criminal sanctions or civil lawsuits.
He added that he's unsure of the extent of unreported abuse. "I know with the Penn State thing, people think that it's happening everywhere," he said. "But I don't know how big of a problem it is. I don't know that anybody does."
Janet Hartge, assistant director of advocacy for children for the state's Legal Aid Bureau, questioned whether criminal penalties would cause more people to report abuse.
"I think there is unreported abuse, but it tends to be unknown abuse," said Hartge, who works with numerous child abuse cases. "I don't think it's usually a matter of people knowing and not coming forward."
She said that with criminal penalties in place, she would worry that some educators might close their ears to allegations of abuse because it would be less risky for them to remain ignorant.
What made the Penn State case so unusual, she said, is that a then-graduate assistant on the football team allegedly witnessed the abuse.
Pennsylvania law treats the failure to report abuse as a misdemeanor, but the reporting requirements are less strict. For example, Paterno apparently met his legal obligation by reporting the suspected abuse to his boss. In Maryland, he would have been expected to contact a social service or law enforcement agency and to submit a written report that would have been copied to a local state's attorney.
In Maryland, school systems already emphasize the need to report child abuse, with most employees going through training every year to refresh their understanding of the rules. Maryland's code on family law requires them to report abuse to a social service or law enforcement agency as quickly as possible and also to send a written report to the local state's attorney within 48 hours.
Those who fail to report abuse can face the loss or suspension of their teaching certificates, but such situations arise infrequently, said Buckler, of the state Department of Education.
"We've been really doing a lot around this issue for many years," he said. "Our employees undergo training every year, and it's something that we've taken seriously for a long time."
Buckler said he urges educators to err on the side of reporting potential abuse. "If you think something is wrong, report it and let the experts in child services do their jobs," he said. "I don't see a real gray area on this."
That's a message that has hit home with educators, said Sean Johnson, legislative director for the Maryland State Education Association. Johnson said Maryland's law is already more complete than its Pennsylvania counterpart.
"The penalty for not doing it," he said of reporting, "is that you lose your job. That's already pretty significant."
The Penn State case was unusual because it allegedly happened at a university rather than a K-12 school. Though university educators are also covered by Maryland's mandatory reporting laws, the issue does not come up as much as it does at institutions where most of the students are minors.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.