JEFFERSON CITY — Some Missouri senators raised concerns Monday that colleagues might be going too far in their response to the sex abuse scandal at Penn State University by proposing criminal penalties for any adult who fails to report child sexual abuse.
The Missouri legislation, which is similar to bills being considered in at least a dozen states, would require anyone age 18 or older who witnesses child sex abuse to report it to a law enforcement agency or the state Family Services Division, which investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Those who don't could face misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said his bill was prompted by the case against retired assistant Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was charged in November with child sex abuse. Two school officials there were charged with failing to properly report abuse allegations. But Schmitt cited reports about another university employee who told his boss about witnessing sexual abuse and did not tell police — and was not charged with failing to report abuse.
Schmitt's bill would expand a Missouri law that already requires about two dozen categories of individuals — including doctors, teachers and ministers — to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the state Family Services Division. The proposed reporting mandate for all adults would apply only to observed cases of child sexual abuse, not instances of neglect and not to secondhand reports or suspicion of sexual abuse.
"The goal of this is to make sure these sexual offenders are brought to prosecution," Schmitt said. "This bill closes the gap between what we know is the right thing to do and what the law actually says."
Yet several senators said the legislation could have unintended consequences for families.
Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, questioned the wisdom of making a criminal out of an 18-year-old high school senior who witnesses a stepfather abuse a sibling but doesn't go to police out of fear for his or her own personal safety.
"Obviously, no one is going to stand up for the child abuser," Ridgeway said. "But what I want to know is how can this abuse statute be abused?"
Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, cited another scenario in which a mother who reports child sex abuse by a boyfriend — because the law requires her to do so — could end up having her child removed and placed in state custody while authorities try to figure out the situation.
As she studied the bill, "I kept finding more and more of those situations that made me uncomfortable," Justus said.
Senators set the bill aside without taking a vote after debating it Monday. Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said it was unclear when he would bring the bill back up for debate.
"I think senators want to think it through," Dempsey said.