Penn State scandal prompts senator to tweak Missouri's child abuse law

Monday, December 5, 2011 | 11:07 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — It is not a crime in Missouri for a regular citizen to walk away from a child being abused under current law — but a bill filed for the upcoming legislative session would change this.

The change would add a single sentence to the state's mandatory reporting law, which has been in place since 1975, that would expand current reporting requirements to include anyone who witnesses sexual abuse of a child.

The current law only requires people who care for children in an official capacity, such as teachers or medical professionals, to report suspected or witnessed abuse to the state Department of Social Services or a superior.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said that recent national events prompted him to evaluate Missouri's law regarding child abuse. The scandal at Penn State includes a witness to Jerry Sandusky's alleged child sex abuse who did not to report it to authorities.

Missouri would join 18 other states that require any individual who sees sexual abuse to report it, Schmitt said.

"These are pretty heinous crimes," Schmitt said. "And when somebody witnesses that, I think we ought to require people to report that to law enforcement, and those people ought to be punished."

Schmitt specified sexual abuse in his proposed addition to law, and he chose not to include suspicions of abuse, which eliminates confusion about what qualifies as abuse or neglect. Because social services is required to investigate every report, it could become overburdened if everyone with suspicions called.

"Sen. Schmitt seems to be going the right way here, by narrowing it to a specific area," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, the most senior legislator in the General Assembly.

Joy Oesterly, the executive director of the child abuse advocacy group Missouri Kids First, said she supports the law but still doesn't think all incidents will be reported to the authorities.

"It's easy to sit here in our offices and in our homes and say, 'I would have reported had I seen that,' but we really don't know what we would have done," Oesterly said.

She said a better solution would be to train everyone on how to identify and report child abuse.

"It makes it clear to every Missourian that they are responsible for protecting children," Oesterly said.

Failing to report abuse would become a Class A misdemeanor, which could result in up to a year in prison or a fine, Schmitt said.

Schmitt said he expects more aspects of this issue to be discussed during the legislative session, which begins on Jan. 4.

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