As a result of the Jerry Sandusky /Penn State child abuse scandal on July 1, 2015, a new law, Persons Required to Report Suspected Child Abuse, 23 Pa.C.S.A.§ 6311, went into effect in Pennsylvania. Its’ impact is widespread. Parent volunteers in schools and others who come into close contact with children now may be required to obtain child abuse clearances before school districts or other organizations permit contact with students. Clearances must be obtained from the state police, and if the volunteer is not a Pennsylvania resident for 10 years he/she must be cleared by the FBI. For many parents volunteering in their children’s schools, chaperoning trips or coaching little league and soccer is a rite of passage. Since the law is relatively new, it has taken many by surprise. Some are annoyed by the bureaucratic paperwork requirements, quite a few are confused, and others simply are reducing their community involvement. Some background perhaps puts the motivation and need for this change in perspective.
Enhanced mandatory child abuse reporting harkens back to the spring of 2008, when the mother of a 15 year old high school freshman reported to the principal that her son had been sexually assaulted. The perpetrator was a prominent retired football coach and local philanthropist whom the student met through a charity organized by the coach to help children from disadvantaged families. The school principal, mandated by state law to report child abuse allegations, referred the student to the county Children and Youth Services department. The matter was investigated by a young social worker unfamiliar with renowned Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. She reported the results of her interview with the student to the Pennsylvania State Police. Ultimately the matter was referred to the Attorney General’s office, which obtained a grand jury indictment of the coach.
In 2011, Sandusky was arrested and charged with 40 criminal counts involving at least 7 victims over many years. In 2012, Sandusky was convicted of child sex abuse and is serving a 30 to 60 year sentence. In the process, storied football Coach Joe Paterno’s reputation and legacy were tarnished and Penn State University officials still face trial on perjury charges stemming from their failure to report suspected abuse to authorities.
Among the facts that came to light during the investigation and trial was the number of people who observed disturbing interactions between Sandusky and young boys, but did not tell anyone. Or if reports were made reports to superiors, the supervisors took no action to notify the police or social services agencies who would have investigated and perhaps spared others from abuse.
In the aftermath of the scandal, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the provisions of the state’s child protection statute by requiring more people to report to independent investigative agencies and by making it easier to make reports on the phone or on-line. The new law expands the list of people who are mandatory reporters, i.e. those who must report information they come to know about suspected child abuse. There are now fourteen (14) categories of mandated reporters, which include all school employees including those at public and private community colleges and K-12 schools, all staff at child care centers, police, clergy, EMTs, employees of medical facilities, librarians and volunteers who are regularly in contact with children in youth sports, church groups, scouts, dance classes, clubs and community groups.
A report is mandatory if you have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is the victim of abuse by coming in contact with the student, or if someone reports to you that a specific child is the victim of abuse or if someone 14 or older admits to you that he/she has committed child abuse. The victim does not have to come to the reporter and it is not necessary that the reporter know the identity of the perpetrator of the abuse. Once the report, which can be anonymous, is made to the state’s CHILDLINE hotline phone number it will be directed to an appropriate child welfare or police agency for investigation. The oral report should be followed within 24 hours by an electronic filing but the failure to file the electronic report does not alleviate the duty agencies of the duty to investigate.
If you have a volunteer position where you come into contact with children on a regular basis, check to determine if your school district or community organization requires you to obtain child abuse clearances. Be advised that participating in proximity to students/ children/ young adults on a regular basis may impose on you a duty to report suspected child abuse.