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Child Abuse Advocate: Reporting Bills Misguided

One child protection advocacy group is arguing against bills in the General Assembly that would legally require all Pennsylvania school employees to report suspected child abuse, and mandate reporting for anyone who witnesses abuse taking place.

The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform contends that similar measures in 18 other states haven't changed child abuse rates, and often lead to false accusations.

NCCPR Executive Director Richard Wexler said that the mandatory child abuse reporting bills spurred by the Penn State scandal would "terribly overload" child protective agencies in Pennsylvania.

"Even now, nationwide, more than three-quarters of all reports alleging child abuse are false," said Wexler. "So, workers for agencies like Allegheny County CYS are spending three-quarters of their time spinning their wheels."

Wexler argued that child abuse investigations are very often traumatic for children, especially in cases of suspected sexual abuse. He said that there's no reason to put a child through such procedures based on the "vague suspicion" of a school employee who's worried about facing penalties for not reporting.

A reporting bill from Senator Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline) had been in development for years, and has now been thrust into the spotlight after allegations of child sexual abuse by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. A former graduate assistant claimed that he saw Sandusky raping a child in a shower.

"If Senate Bill 549 were law, the graduate assistant's responsibility would have been to contact police and/or child protective services immediately to report what he had seen," said Fontana.

Beyond Senator Fontana's bill, legislation planned for the House would require any Pennsylvanian who sees child abuse taking place to report it or face felony charges.

However, Wexler said that it's very rare for someone to walk in on sexual abuse.

"In any kind of situation like that, of course you do everything to stop it," said Wexler. "Either get it stopped yourself, call the police, call anyone and everyone in sight. The overwhelming majority of cases are nothing like that. They are much more ambiguous."

Wexler said that bills like these aren't necessarily effective.

"When we react by saying, 'Make anyone and everyone a mandated reporter,' that's not helping children. That's adult self-indulgence," said Wexler. "It makes us feel better that we are doing something about it."

At the federal level, U.S. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is calling for a review of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.