Push to strengthen state's child abuse reporting law debated

Maryland is one of three states that requires workers in certain occupations to report child abuse but whose law doesn't include criminal sanctions against those who fail to do so, according to a state legislative analysis.

That distinction met with renewed criticism last week after a Baltimore Sun investigation by Tricia Bishop revealed court records claiming that a Catholic school principal and other Catholic officials were aware of a teacher's sexual abuse of students, but didn't report it until the teacher was under investigation — years after the crimes took place in the 1970s.

Though it's impossible to know how a proposed law would have affected years-old cases, state legislators and sexual-abuse activists say the situation points out the need for criminal sanctions or at least fines in its "mandatory reporting" law.

According to the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway, 47 states and Washington, D.C., impose penalties on mandatory reporters who knowingly and willfully fail to report child abuse or neglect. Arizona, Florida and Minnesota even treat failure to report serious abuse as a felony.

A push has been under way over the past few years to create sanctions in Maryland —- but questions remain as to what scenarios deserve punishment. The issues will likely be debated again during the next legislative session.

The impetus to add punishment to non-reporters grows out of the Penn State University scandal as well as the Sun investigation related to John Merzbacher, a one-time lay teacher at Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point.

Merzbacher, 71, is serving four life terms for rape and other crimes committed while teaching at the school, but is seeking his release in a federal appeal. Court documents and recent interviews with former students describe several situations in which critics claim the church had opportunities to protect schoolchildren from Merzbacher but did not notify police of the allegations against the teacher.

In Maryland, educators, health practitioners, social service workers and police officers are required under state law to report suspected child abuse to local authorities and their bosses. The state's code on family law requires them to report suspected abuse to social service or law enforcement agencies as quickly as possible and send a written report to the local state's attorney within 48 hours.

Punishment for not following the law might not come from the state but it can come from occupational licensing boards. Educators, for instance, can face the loss or suspension of their teaching certificates, but critics say that happens infrequently.

State Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, tried to pass a law that would add criminal sanctions this year but failed. She plans to introduce the bill again next year.

Her bill states that workers, required to report child abuse, cannot "knowingly and willfully" fail to file a report if they have "actual and direct knowledge" of child abuse. Someone found guilty could face a misdemeanor charge and, if convicted, could earn up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. The bill, which includes other new reporting requirements, also includes a provision that gives those who report child abuse immunity from civil and criminal penalties.

Eileen King of Child Justice, Inc., a child advocacy group that handles cases in the Mid-Atlantic region, has several concerns about the bill. In an email she sent to Kelley and the Sun, she said one of the more prominent issues is the bill's language requiring "actual and direct knowledge" of abuse to trigger a child abuse report is troubling. If a child tells a teacher about abuse, is that direct knowledge? How do you define it?

King said "it is high time that Maryland steps away from the Bermuda triangle of the three states that have no civil or criminal penalty for failing to report child abuse." But the debate on how to do so continues.

—Justin George

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