The D.C. Council gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that mandates "universal reporting" of sex abuse against children, making the District the latest jurisdiction to re-examine its laws in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University.
The city's law requires any adult who knows — or has reason to believe — that a child age 16 or younger has been sexually abused to report the incident to police or the city's Child and Family Services Agency. It expands a current law that requires only "special reporters" such as teachers, physicians and law enforcement officers to notify authorities of known or suspected abuse.
People who fail to report abusive acts are subject to a civil penalty of up to $300, while special reporters face a fine of up to $1,000 and a criminal penalty of up to 180 days in jail.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the legislation is aimed at encouraging people to speak up, and not about punishment.
"There ought to be a clear policy, and right now there isn't," he said.
The law is the product of a nationwide reflection on how adults report sensitive crimes and, in some cases, deal with the accompanying stigma that can prevent witnesses from speaking up. Headlines surrounding the arrest and conviction of Sandusky, a former coach for Penn State's high-profile football program, cast a spotlight on the issue after he was arrested and found guilty of molesting young victims through his charity, the Second Mile, and in liaisons on campus —including a graphic act in a locker-room shower that a graduate stumbled upon and reported to head coach Joe Paterno.
Officials and news reports indicated the information went up the chain of university officials but was not reported adequately to police or a grand jury.
A closely watched case, the impact of the Penn State scandal on mandatory reporting has been loud and immediate. More than 100 bills on the reporting of child sex abuse or neglect were introduced in 30 states and the District during legislative sessions this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Mr. Mendelson said the District will join 18 states with a universal reporting law.
"This is not something that is novel or extraordinary," he said.
A committee report on the D.C. bill mentions the Sandusky case multiple times, and council staff members received a mixed response when they asked the U.S. attorney's office and the city's child services agency whether witnesses in the Penn State scandal would have been subject to charges in the District. A blanket policy of universal reporting would eliminate the confusion, according to city officials.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray indicated in a letter to the council Thursday that he would sign the bill, assuming it passes on a second reading before the council.
The law provides immunity to those who report incidents in good faith, even if the report is ultimately debunked. It also provides an exemption for other victims, when the alleged perpetrator was also their abuser, lawyers who learn of incidents during their representation of a client and clergy who gain knowledge of the acts through a confession.
The committee report notes that children cannot comprehend their victimization in the way adults can, nor do they have the resources to report it. Predators create a "false trust" with their young victims and use fear to carry out their crimes, the report says.
Specific to the District, Mr. Mendelson, a Democrat, has been disappointed by the level of reporting by the D.C. Public Schools on recent occasions.
"In one instance, when one constituent pressed a principal to report an allegation, the school system responded by barring the individual from school property," the committee report says.
The incident, first reported by The Washington Times, involved a Ward 7 activist who alerted officials at Randle Highlands Elementary School, where her nephew then attended first grade, to what she thought was inappropriate touching of a child by another student. The next month, she was barred from the school with a notice that said she improperly "interviewed a first-grade student" and initiated an investigation of alleged sexual misconduct without immediately contacting the principal, among other charges.
Mr. Mendelson intervened, and barring notices against the activist and several others were lifted in August. The council chairman referred to the incident while talking to reporters about his legislation Thursday, but did not mention the parties by name.
"Let's protect the kids," Mr. Mendelson said. "There's way too much stigma around it."
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