Missouri child abuse law similar to Pennsylvania's mandatory reporting statute

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 | 9:04 p.m. CST; updated 10:26 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 16, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — The same loophole that contributed to Pennsylvania State University's current drama going unreported to authorities also exists in Missouri state law.

The scandal in State College, Pa., emerged after an assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of molesting young boys on university property. University officials were informed, but none told authorities.

Missouri is one of only six states that, like Pennsylvania, has a legal loophole exempting some people who witness child abuse from any legal obligation to report it to the state department handling child abuse investigations — in this case, Missouri's Department of Social Services.

Only those in some way responsible for the care of minors — specifically teachers, school administrators, ministers, childcare workers and medical professionals — are required to report abuse to authorities. An additional exemption in the law gives employees of "a medical institution, school facility or other agency" the option to report to their supervisor instead.

Some, including the original sponsor of Missouri's law, say the law should be changed.

"I would support a change in it that would make it mandatory for everybody," said Ken Rothman, a former state representative who co-sponsored the mandatory reporting law in 1975.

Sen. Victor Callahan, the Senate's Democratic leader from Jackson County, said he also believes the exemption should be addressed, adding that he doesn't think the law's current language addresses "the seriousness of child abuse."

There were 26,709 incidents of abuse or neglect reported to Missouri's child abuse hotline in 2010 — 58 percent of which came from people mandated to report, according to a report from the Missouri Department of Social Services. Investigators determined that 27 percent of these reports warranted assistance or intervention.

One in four girls and one in six boys are abused as children, said Joy Oesterly, executive director of Missouri Kids First. Her organization teaches parents that talking to their children about the possibility of abuse and appropriate interactions with adults can empower them to protect themselves.

But, she said, changing the language of the law might create some resistance from schools. The current stipulation allows school administrators to decide if an incident is severe enough to report.

"When policymakers decide whether that law needs to be changed or not, I hope they will weigh out what other states have done and what the unintended consequences of enacting or not enacting new legislation might be," she said.

One negative consequence, Oesterly said, could be the overburdening of child abuse investigators.

She said schools might want to keep the exemption that administrators determine which incidents are severe enough to report.

And, Oesterly said, reporting an incident through multiple people could cause some to miss details of the incident and to lose the sense of urgency in situations of child abuse.

"I think it's really important that whoever witnesses or whoever the child discloses to should be the one that actually makes the report," she said.

Others doubt the impact changing the law would have.

Kyle Farmer, an attorney for the Missouri State Teacher's Association, said he didn't believe a change in the law would result in more incidents being reported.

"I don't think it would really change the outcome, quite honestly," Farmer said. "I like for my teachers to be able to send (the report) to the principal or whoever it is in their school district just because I think that's what the law says — that's what it requires — but at the same time (the law) actually doesn't prohibit teachers or any mandatory reporter from making that phone call."

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