By Ana M. Valdes (The Palm Beach Post)
June 30, 2012
As former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sits in prison, convicted this month on 45 child sex abuse charges, officials in Florida and across the country are drastically changing the way allegations of child abuse are reported and investigated to protect children.
In Florida, legislators this year approved what many child advocates consider the toughest mandatory reporting legislation in the country for sexual abuse in universities and other schools.
The "Protection of Vulnberable Persons" law, SB 1816, states that anyone who suspects a child is being abused must report it. Currently, Florida law mandates the reporting of child abuse when the suspect is a parent or caretaker. In addition, failure to report suspected child abuse is now a third-degree felony, not just a misdemeanor, and universities could face fines of $1 million if officials do not report the abuse. Universities could also lose state funding for two years, according to the law.
The law takes effect Oct. 1, but universities in Palm Beach County and across the state are already tweaking their abuse-response protocols and adding training for staff and employees in compliance with the new regulations.
At Lynn University in Boca Raton, where dozens of kids attend science and arts camps every summer, human resources officials are examining the law and planning to offer training for employees before the beginning of the school year in August.
"Our next steps are going to be to fully understand... that the university's responsibilities are going to be and how we need to translate that into the required training and awareness of our faculty and staff members," said Carole Dodge, director of employee services at Lynn, who is also a member of the school's sexual assault response team.
Dodge said that while summer camp staffers get thorough background checks before being hired and must follow camp rules about reporting suspected child abuse to the state Department of Children and Families, the university's athletic coaches do not undergo the same training. "We are going to have to develop a training in response to this (law) for when they develop their sports camps," Dodge added.
Penn State University, where Sandusky abused 10 boys over a 15-year period, instituted a policy requiring employees to report suspected child abuse to state authorities.
But legislators nationwide also acted in response to the Penn State scandal. About 105 bills have been introduced in 2012 legislative sessions in 30 states and the District of Columbia.
About a dozen states have enacted new laws, including Florida. Oregon, West Virginia, Virginia and South Dakota, for example, expanded their lists of professions whose members are required to reqport suspected abuse.
Jill Levenson, an associate professor of psychology at Lynn and an expert in issues related to child abuse, said Florida's law "is really a symbolic statement to say to people, 'This is important and you need to take this seriously'."
Florida has had a child abuse reporting law on its books for years, requiring all citizens to report allegations of abuse, she said. "What the new law does is, it increases penalties for not reporting. If you suspect that a child is in danger, it's your moral duty as an adult to step in," Levenson said.
She does not expect to see an increase in people being prosecuted for failing to report, but she does anticipate university administrations altering their procedures for dealing with allegations of abuse.
Schools and universities are not the only ones making changes to comply with Florida's new law. The Department of Children and Families will be spending over $2 million to hire about 42 new counselors and five supervisors for the Florida Abuse Hotline to comply with the law.
Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for DCF, said the hotline accepts calls of abuse or neglect of a child when a parent or caretaker is the alleged abuser. If the suspected abuser is not a parent or caregiver, the hotline operator encourages the caller to contact local law enforcement and report their concerns. Under the new law, the hotline must now look into abuse allegations even if the perpetrator is not a parent or caretaker.
"We will take all the calls at DCF and either forward them to a DCF investigator if it's a caretaker issue or we will transfer them to law enforcement agencies," Gillespie said, adding that the department expects the hotline to get about 40,000 more calls when the new law is in place. "We are making sure that all these calls get reported to the appropriate law enforcement agency, and it takes a step out of the process so you don't lose anyone in between," Gillespie said.
Currently, the hotline gets about 300,000 calls annually.
DCF will also set up a simplified online reporting system. The current online reporting tool isn't as user-friendly as it should be, Gillespie said.
She added that she hopes the new law will encourage more Floridians to speak up. "You always have people that report abuse of a child or even of an adult because it's the right thing to do, but if increased penalties make someone more likely to report abuse, then it's a only a good thing," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.