On Thursday, February 16th, Assistant Legal Methods Professor Starla J. Williams
presented “Reform of the PA Child Protective Services Law: Filling the Gap in the Mandatory Reporting Requirements of Suspected Child Abuse” to students on the Harrisburg campus as part of the ongoing Pizza and Policy in the Pit series. With the recent Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State in the news, the topic had particular relevance.
Professor Williams revealed some shocking statistics, noting that every 10 seconds, someone makes a report of child abuse in the United States, and according to a government researcher, over 90% of juvenile sex abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way. Even more shocking is the fact that the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare does not receive all reports of suspected child abuse, as evidenced by the Sandusky tragedy. Although all 50 States have mandatory child abuse and neglect reporting laws, this does not impose a duty on everyone to report. Some states only require professionals and institutions to report suspected abuse to a child protection authority.
The recent Penn State scandal illustrated such reporting failures. The grand jury report revealed 40 counts of child sex abuse against former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. According to his own grand jury testimony, the late Joe Paterno received an eyewitness account of Sandusky’s sexual contact with a young boy in 2002. The grand jury concluded that Penn State officials should have reported allegations of child sex abuse to the DPW under Pennsylvania law.
Under PA law, those persons required to report suspected child abuse include anyone who comes professionally in contact with children and has the expertise or training to recognize abuse and neglect as well as agencies, institutions or organizations with which such individuals are associated.
Professor Williams predicted three anticipated defenses that the Penn State officials under indictment might use:
- “Well, I told my boss”
- “They’re not our student”
- “That’s not what I heard.”
Professor Williams suggested three reforms to help protect all children and address those lines of defense. The first is to clarify in the statute whose responsibility it is to report in order to avoid the “I told my boss defense.” The second is to broaden the coverage to any child so as to avoid the “That’s not our child defense.” The third is to add a subsection that compels mandated reporters to tell the person next in charge and requires the DPW to notify the person in charge to prevent the “That’s not what I heard” defense.