Sexual abuse: Maryland legislators propose new mandatory reporting bill

As cases of sexual abuse are uncovered and investigated in the news, state legislators are attempting to tighten laws that address these types of cases.

According to the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway, 47 states and Washington, D.C. impose penalties on mandatory reporters who knowingly and willfully fail to report alleged child abuse. In three states, failure to report purported abuse is a felony.

In Maryland, health practitioners, educators, social service workers and police officers are required to report suspected child abuse to authorities. Furthermore, the state’s family law code requires them to report suspected abuse to social service or law enforcement agencies as soon as possible and send a written report to the local state’s attorney within 48 hours of establishing suspicion.

As the law currently stands, punishment for not reporting alleged abuse can come from occupational licensing boards – not the state. Educators may face the loss or suspension of their teaching licenses but, in reality, this rarely happens.

Legislators and victim advocates have been pushing to create mandatory reporting sanctions in Maryland, but some legislators question the proposal. The possibility of false reporting will rise as people who work with children may tend to over-report suspected abuse for fear of losing their jobs. It is likely that the issues will be explored during the next legislative session.

The movement for reforms evolved out of the recent Penn State University scandal and a local investigation related to a teacher at a Catholic school in Locust Point. Court documents indicate that the school’s principal and other Catholic officials were aware of the teacher’s sexual abuse of students in the 1970s; however, officials did not report the abuse until the teacher was criminally investigated two decades later.

Maryland legislators previously attempted to pass a law that would add criminal reporting sanctions, but it failed. Nevertheless, advocates of the sanctions plan to reintroduce the bill next year.

Under the proposal, workers that are required to report suspected child abuse cannot “knowingly and willfully” fail to file a report if they have “actual and direct knowledge” of child abuse. A person found guilty could face misdemeanor charges. A convicted person could receive up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. The bill, which includes other proposals, includes a provision that gives those who report suspected child abuse immunity from civil and criminal penalties.

Critics of the bill question the language, which requires “actual and direct knowledge” of abuse to prompt a report. For example, if a child tells a teacher about abuse, is that considered direct knowledge? Alleging sexual abuse is a heavy accusation. Wrongfully accusing someone of abuse can have detrimental consequences to his or her life.

Next year, the Maryland proposal will include terms that would require medical examiners to report suspected child abuse. The bill will also force employees of colleges or universities to report abuse claims to chancellors. This idea is prompted by the recent Penn State University case.

In the wake of the legislative proposals, other states are also considering changes to child protection laws. The consequences of mandatory reporting could be problematic for those wrongfully accused. Legislative changes can seriously affect the way criminal accusations unfold. If you have been accused of a sex crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.