Punish those who 'knowingly' fail to report abuse

Attorney Shanta Trivedi recently made the claim that the Maryland Senate passed legislation that would turn trusted community members into criminals and that the House should not follow suit. The new bills propose criminal penalties for people required to report child abuse or neglect who “knowingly” fail to do so, including teachers and nurses (“Abuse reporting bills would criminalize teachers,” March 12).

She points out an important misperception about the proposed bill, HB 500. The bill seeks to do what current law does not: provide prosecutors a tool to charge mandatory reporters who fail to report known and obvious abuse. Most mandatory reporters follow the law, but HB 500 addresses the stubborn few who do not — even if faced with the recent prospect of having their license reviewed or their employer notified.

After years of compromise with legislators and professional associations for doctors, nurses, social workers, law enforcement, therapists, counselors and teachers, the bill uses an extremely high “actual knowledge” standard. In other words, Maryland would only impose criminal penalties against those few mandatory reporters who fail to report obvious abuse. Think USA Gymnastics, think Penn State. A judge or jury would decide that standard, under the circumstances of each case.

This would make Maryland’s penalty law far more difficult to use than any other penalty of its kind in the country. Most states penalize a “knowing failure” to report suspected abuse. Florida makes it a felony. Despite years of effort by child abuse advocates like us, Maryland refuses to go anywhere near the national standard.

For the first time, no professional association of mandatory reporters publicly opposes HB 500. Some, like the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, now support it. The opposition is now from those who prefer that Maryland follow the national standard on this issue.

The author states correctly that, under a new 2016 law, a mandatory reporter who fails to report child abuse can face a review of their license. Many mandatory reporters, however, such as coaches, police officers and camp counselors, do not have a licensing board. The law then requires that their employer be notified.

Sadly, the news is full of too many instances of employers who protect employees at the expense of children. HB 500 helps close the gap and address the very few bad apples who turn away from obvious abuse. It will not cause a surge in reporting. It will only help hold accountable those few who defy current law and refuse to report anyway.

Joyce Lombardi, Baltimore

The writer is director of government relations for the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.

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