By Tim Craig
Nearly all adults in the District would be held liable if they fail to report suspected child sex abuse under a bill tentatively approved Thursday by the D.C. Council.
The legislation, which comes in the aftermath of the Penn State University sex-abuse scandal, would greatly expand existing city laws requiring mandatory reporting for government workers, teachers and counselors who work closely with children.
After reports surfaced at Penn State that some adults failed to report potential warning signs of abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, council member Phil Mendelson (D) pushed to broaden reporting laws to cover all but a few exempted adults in the District.
“We are interested in sending a clear message,” said Mendelson, now the council’s chairman, noting that 18 states have similar regulations. “This is a bill that simply establishes a policy, that everyone has to report if they know or have reason to believe a child has been sexually abused.”
But the proposal is prompting some unease about government overreach that would set the stage for a surge in thinly vetted complaints, which could lead to false accusations.
“I think we definitely want to achieve more reporting, but there is definitely some concerns around how [authorities] will handle the level of reports that they will get and potentially false allegations,” said council member Kenyan M. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), a former Prince George’s County assistant state’s attorney. “And does having lots of false allegations have the effect of making it more challenging to prove some of these cases?”
Under the bill, which must be voted on a second time before it goes to Mayor Vincent C. Gray for his signature, anyone 18 or older “with knowledge or reasonable cause” to believe an adult is abusing someone younger than 16 must “immediately” report it to police or Child and Family Services. Violators can be fined $300.
Attorneys and ordained ministers are exempt to protect attorney-client and clergy-penitent privileges. Victims of sex abuse would not be required to report past abuse.
For caregivers, teachers and other government officials covered by existing reporting laws, the bill increases penalties to a $1,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail.
In an interview, Mendelson cautioned that he expects penalties to be rarely enforced. But the legislation comes amid a broader debate about the public’s responsibility to be vigilant of abuse vs. the right to privacy.