Legislators aim to expand who reports child sex abuse

In the wake of the child molestation scandal at Penn State, some Connecticut legislators are taking a hard look at who’s required to report sex abuse in the state — and who isn’t.

Speaking at a forum on children and the 2012 legislative session Tuesday morning, state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, announced a plan to research the state’s legal definition of a mandated sex abuse reporter — and to legislate an expansion of that list of reporters, if necessary.

“I expect everyone in this room will lend their support,” she said, speaking to a crowd of policymakers and experts on children’s issues. “Because what are the chances that a child experiencing sexual abuse will go forward and have a successful life?”

Urban and state Sen. Terry Gerratana, co-chairs of the Select Committee on Children, think their efforts could lead to legislation that would require every adult in Connecticut to be a mandated reporter.

There’s currently a long list of mandated sex abuse reporters in Connecticut — from day care providers to medical personnel, psychologists, nurses and school employees (http://www.ct.gov/dcf/cwp/view.asp?a=2556&Q=314388#Who). The list, however, is limited to those who work with and have regular contact with children.

“We feel very strongly that any adult that sees a child being sexually assaulted should be mandated to report that to the police,” Urban said in an interview. “I don’t understand why that would be a problem. I think the general assumption is that our reporting laws are up to speed, but they’re not as airtight as you might think.”

Reached by phone, Gerratana agreed — but said there was no cause for alarm.

“We’re just trying to find out whether the current mechanism is sufficient to protect our children,” she said. “We want to be sure.”

The two lawmakers — working with state Rep. Gerald Fox III, chairman of the Judiciary Committee — have asked the Office of Legislative Research to compile a report on current law, with special attention paid to reporting mechanisms at the state college and university system. They plan to involve child advocates and law enforcement agents, Urban said, and will then ask for public feedback before introducing a bill to the legislature in February.

“I would be surprised if there was any pushback on this,” she said.

Asked about the feasibility of requiring that every Connecticut adult be a mandated reporter, Urban said, “I don’t see why we can’t.” Enforcement would be hard, she admitted, but she said her team is looking into the possibilities.

Under current law, mandated reporters must call the 24 hour Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline — operated by the state Department of Children and Families — within 12 hours of learning of or witnessing child abuse. A written report follows within 48 hours. If they don’t report the incident, they can be subject to fines of up to $2,500. They can also be required to participate in educational and training programs. In addition, that reporter could be subject to liability if the child is further endangered as a result.

Urban said she was largely concerned about internal, organizational policies keeping employees from reporting crimes. Looking into this at a grade school and college level will be a priority, she said.

A 2010 report by then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the Office of the Child Advocate found that even where the law required reporting, sex abuse cases were slipping through the cracks. The report showed that legal requirements were not always followed, and that DCF followup investigations were inconsistent. School districts were also conducting their own investigations before making contact with DCF or the police.

“That report did result in legislation,” said Jeanne Milstein, Connecticut’s child advocate. “And many districts responded immediately and made sweeping changes.” The legislation required increased communication between DCF and the State Department of Education, as well as training courses for mandated reporters.

But maybe we should be doing more, she said. After Tuesday’s hearing, Milstein said her office would work with Urban and Gerratana on the issue.

“Enforcement might be an problem,” she said. “But I commend her for focusing on this. No matter what the laws are, we can’t be safe enough.”

Awareness is the most important thing, Milstein said. “Not many people know they can call in anonymously to the DCF hotline, but it’s so important that they do.” Abuse can also be reported to local police, she said.

Urban had strong words for would-be abusers.

“The reason that we’re doing this now is because we want to send a message: don’t do this in Connecticut,” she said. “Otherwise, Representative Urban will come after you with her horse whip.”

“We may very well have a sufficient reporting mechanism,” Gerrantana added. “But the Penn State incident has us thinking twice.”