While I do enjoy plumbing “gray area” hypotheticals and connecting different issues to one another, I’m afraid those predilections obscured a central point I wanted to make in my previous column on new laws about reporting child abuse.
As noted, the new laws expand the definition of “mandatory reporters,” folks who work with kids and are now legally required—24/7— to inform authorities of any evidence they see of child abuse, physical and/or sexual. A reader pointed out, however, that one of the laws puts a reporting requirement on everybody who witnesses child abuse—not just those who work with children in a professional capacity. The law in question is Act 614, sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans.
Mandatory reporters who do not report child abuse face stiffer penalties than the average person, but all of us face criminal charges if we ignore abuse.
The new legislation flowed from widespread public dismay over the Penn State sex abuse scandal, which included reports by a an assistant coach that he had witnessed coach Jerry Sandusky abusing a boy in the university showers. Again, it’s rare to witness extreme physical beatings or sexual molestations occurring in public like that. Usually one sees only the symptoms of abuse inflicted behind closed doors. I’m sure most of us would quickly act to interrupt abuse if we witnessed it. (Indeed, I don’t know how we’d live with ourselves if we didn’t do something.)
But do we know what to do? Some might look for the nearest security guard. But notifying a private security guard is not enough. They are not necessarily mandatory reporters.
If you witness abuse you should call local or state law enforcement. If you believe the abuse is being inflicted by a parent or guardian, call the state hotline 1-855-4LA-KIDS (855-452-5437).
Awareness of the new laws will likely lead to more reports of abuse, which will lead to more investigations that will hopefully protect more kids by rescuing them from abusive environments. But the mandate to report is also likely to further tax law enforcement and the Department of Child and Family Services. (A commenter on my last post has doubts about whether the DCFS is effectively handling its current workload.)
New reporting mandates that apply to all Louisiana adults will challenge any department tasked with investigating child-abuse claims. But that’s OK. As I mentioned in the last column, a flurry of reports that, on investigation, don’t pan out are better than abuse that goes unreported altogether. You can’t blame people for “erring” on the side of child safety.
But I’m left with worries about the investigatory side of the child protection puzzle. The new laws will lead to more investigations and increased caseloads for local child welfare offices. During a time of intensifying budget “austerity,” will they have the resources and personnel they need to handle this important work?