ANNAPOLIS – When legislators required some professionals working with children to report suspected child abuse and neglect, they never expected they would have to add penalties to get them to comply.
But numerous accounts of professionals failing to report serious abuse and neglect — failures that have even resulted in deaths — inspired Delegate Pauline H. Menes, D-Prince George’s, to sponsor a bill making it a crime for some professionals to fail to report such problems.
Menes is trying to put teeth into a law that has no bite. Health practitioners, police officers, educators and human service workers now must report cases of child abuse and neglect, but they couldn’t be criminally sanctioned for their silence.
The bill adds fines of up to $1,000 for failing to report their suspicions of abuse.
“We decided not to put penalties (on the original bill), because we thought professionals would follow the law,” Menes said.
She said she doesn’t understand why professionals who are supposed to have the interests of children at heart wouldn’t report abuse.
This bill, she said, may be “the stick to encourage them.”
Maryland is one of five states without criminal penalties for failure to report, said Ellen Mugmon, legislative chairwoman for the State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.
It is “not in line with the rest of the states,” Mugmon said.
A Worcester County grand jury, in 1998, recommended that Maryland impose criminal penalties against professionals who fail to report child abuse and neglect, following the death of Shamir Hudson, 8, who was beaten to death by his mother after years of abuse.
A Montgomery County grand jury in a different case made the same recommendation, Mugmon said.
“If you don’t report, children die. If you don’t report, children continue to be at risk,” Mugmon said.
False reporting, which Mugmon said research shows to be rare, can be prosecuted, “but if a teacher or any other mandated reporter fails to report abuse, in essence, there’s no penalty.”
Some professionals can have their license suspended or revoked by their licensing or certification boards, Mugmon said, but to her knowledge “there has never been a professional in Maryland who has been sanctioned.”
The State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect is updating sanctioning information.
It’s a law that’s never been enforced. “Professionals can fail to report with impunity,” Mugmon said.
Under the bill, professionals must “willfully” and “knowingly” fail to report child abuse or neglect.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has not taken a position on the bill, a spokesman said. Professional organizations of teachers and law enforcement could not be reached for comment.
Children cannot protect themselves. `
“This bill,” Mugmon said, “is about putting children’s interests first.”
The mandatory reporting requirement does not apply if the abuse or neglect occurred during the childhood of someone who is now an adult, unless other children are still at risk by the accused.
A hearing has not been scheduled.