Child abuse reporting: Let's get the standard right

Neither Shanta Trivedi (“Abuse reporting bills would criminalize teachers,” March 12) nor Joyce Lombardi (“Punish those who knowingly fail to report,” March 14) gets it right. I agree with Ms. Lombardi in her response to Ms.Trivedi that the knowing failure to report child abuse should be punished. But Ms. Lombardi misrepresents the scope of the bill in one direction as much as Ms. Trivedi does in the other. She fails to mention that the bill undermines an important 1993 Attorney General's opinion which requires mandatory reporters to report after the child victim turns 18. Pedophiles do not stop abusing children because a timeline on one victim is added in Maryland law. They go on to abuse other children.

Without this opinion, the shocking disclosures of the notorious Maskell case would never have come to light, as chronicled in the Netflix series, “The Keepers.” The Baltimore Archdiocese affirms on its website, in an answer to a question about the Netflix documentary, that it reported the notorious Maskell case in 1993 only because of that opinion.

One only need look again at the USA Gymnastics scandal to find out what is wrong with SB 132/HB 500. Its provisions are in line with the USA Gymnastics policy, which caused this horrendous scandal in the first place. One gymnast, who was 20 years old at the time, reported to organization officials that team physician Larry Nassar sexually abused her as a child. He is a middle-aged, prolific pedophile who was still sexually abusing young girls. Its investigator never reported because she was 20. Moreover, its former director followed the “actual knowledge” standard in the bill as well. If he personally did not see the abuse, even if he received complaints from other coaches or victims, he did not report it to authorities.

Ms. Lombardi talks about compromise. But the federal government and no other states have a compromise anything like this. The inclusion of the radical “actual knowledge” language (undefined in the bill) would chill reports and prompt those without a professional penalty to delay reporting until they witness the abuse. Having two reporting standards would muddy the obligation to report and encourage internal investigations prior to reporting to determine which standard applies. Congressional bipartisan legislation just enacted, “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act,” criminally penalizes the failure to report abuse in U.S. amateur athletic organizations on the grounds of “reason to suspect,” not “actual knowledge” of abuse or “witnessing the act of abuse.”

Most important, it is wrong to claim that prosecutors could ever use this language to prosecute anyone. According to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney, in her testimony on SB 132, “It is nearly impossible from a legal perspective to prove that an individual had ‘actual knowledge’ of abuse.” That kind of compromise might better be described as merely a pretense that would allow legislators to get this issue off their plate without, in reality, protecting children.

Ellen Mugmon, Elkridge

The writer is former legislative committee chair of the State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.

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