ANNAPOLIS – Following the child abuse scandal at Penn State, the Maryland General Assembly is moving to “add teeth” to an existing law requiring individuals to report child abuse.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, is sponsoring a bill to criminalize the failure to report suspected child abuse, making it a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The bill aims to add a penalty to the law which requires educators, police, health practitioners and all others to notify not only their superiors, but also the appropriate authorities if they suspect abuse. Maryland is only one of three states without such penalty.
The bill is set to be introduced to the legislature with bipartisan support and is gaining momentum after a recent endorsement by the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.
Jacobs met with various organizations dealing with child abuse and neglect when drafting the bill.
“We decided to go with a simple approach,” she said. “The Maryland law is very good but the problem is there’s no penalty.”
Maryland law requires all citizens to report instances of suspected abuse to a superior, as well as to local social services and law enforcement. Most states, including Maryland, allow for anonymous reporting.
The issue arose after former Penn State University football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually abusing at least eight underage boys.
Former Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary testified to a grand jury about seeing Sandusky in the shower with a young boy. He reported the incident to former head coach Joe Paterno, who spoke to higher officials in the University system, with the allegation reaching as high as University President Graham Spanier, according to the grand jury report.
Sandusky was indicted on numerous child sex offenses dating between 1994 and 2009. The scandal led to the firing of Paterno and the forced resignation of Spanier as both were heavily criticized for their handling of the situation.
Hearing the accounts out of Pennsylvania caused Jacobs to examine the current Maryland statute and seek expert advice about how to hold individuals accountable for reporting suspected abuse.
Adam Rosenberg, the executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, said an added penalty can be a way to push people to report suspicions.
“We’re looking to enforce something that isn’t being enforced,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg hopes to clear up misconceptions about the mandatory reporting law, as many do not realize their legal obligation to report suspicions. He hopes this bill will not only give authorities a way to enforce the law, but will provide more clarity for all.
In Virginia, failure to report a suspected incident within 72 hours of the first suspicion leads to a fine of $500 and additional fines for subsequent failures.
Thirty-nine states cite the failure to report as a misdemeanor. In Arizona, Minnesota and Florida, not reporting serious instances is a felony.
Pennsylvania did not have a mandatory reporting law until five years ago, Rosenberg said.
Missouri, Delaware and Kentucky are also reexamining their laws.