Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Penn State Effect: Legislation that does more harm than good

The the ripple effect of the Penn State sex scandal and cover-up continues to impact state legislatures across the country. The Penn State Effect is the knee-jerk reaction to a situation resulting in legislation that does more harm than good.

 The West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation to toughen the state's child abuse reporting laws, moving the bill to the full Senate for passage, according to the Charleston Daily Mail.

Passed by a voice vote of committee members, the bill expands the categories of people who are required by law to report any suspected child abuse or neglect and increases the penalties for those who fail to do so.

In West Virginia, school, law enforcement, and health care professionals are required to immediately report such cases to police. Faculty at public or private institutions — including universities — are legally bound to report such abuse to the institution's president, who is then responsible for calling police.

Lawmakers in Louisiana are also looking to expand child abuse reporting requirements.  Louisiana's legislative efforts could reach every citizen.Failure to report an act of child abuse would become a felony under legislation filed for the spring session of the Louisiana Legislature.

Senate Bill 4, by Senator J.P. Morrell, would set a maximum fine of $10,000, a jail sentence of five years or both for violators.  More importantly, the law would expand reporting requirements to any citizen who witnesses abusive acts and fails to report them.

Currently, 18 states require everyone to report child abuse. The other states require varying categories of people who come into contact with children in a professional capacity to do so. But many child welfare experts say that expanding the pool of mandated reporters could end up harming children rather than helping them, reporting Reuters. For one thing, child welfare investigators may become overwhelmed with specious reports. The time spent on those cases could take away from time investigating real cases of abuse.

"You'd have to employ an awful lot more case workers to deal with all these reports," Theo Liebmann, who directs the Hofstra Child Advocacy Clinic told Reuters. "You'd get some crazy stuff."

There is no statistical evidence that states with more expansive mandatory reporting laws protect children better than those with more restrictive definitions, experts say. In 1998, the lack of evidence about the effectiveness of mandatory reporting prompted the National Research Council to recommend not extending mandatory reporting laws to include cases of domestic violence.


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