Missouri Senators debate change to mandatory child abuse reporting law
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Missouri Senators debate change to mandatory child abuse reporting law

Date: February 20, 2012
By: Stephanie Ebbs
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB457

JEFFERSON CITY - A law requiring anyone over 18 to report an incident of child abuse came under more scrutiny in the Missouri Senate than expected. Several senators said they were concerned about the unintended consequences of making failure to report abuse a Class A misdemeanor.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said he sponsored the bill to prevent a situation like the one involving Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky from happening in Missouri.

The current law only requires those involved in "child care or treatment," such as teachers or medical professionals, to report abuse. The law does not specifically include university employees.

Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles County, said senators are trying to think through the hypothetical consequences of widening the definition.

"We're thinking through under what circumstances would someone not report (child abuse)?" Dempsey said.

One concern raised by Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, was that 18-year-olds may not be mature enough to report child abuse or could face repercussions if the abuser is their parent or guardian.

"I think we're asking an awful lot of an 18-year-old, under penalty of criminal prosecution, who stands to lose a lot," Ridgeway said.

Schmitt said that since they can vote for the leader of the free world, 18-year-olds should be old enough to report abuse. His bill requires incidents be reported to the Department of Social Services only the individual directly witnesses the abuse.

Ridgeway also brought up the possibility that children could face further abuse if law enforcement fails to find enough evidence for a conviction.

Another senator, Rep. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, used her experience as an attorney to give examples of situations where reporting abuse could cause further harm. She said when a mother is being abused and the situation escalates to include her children, the woman could potentially lose custody for failing to report her husband for abuse.

"The problem is that child sexual abuse is so much bigger than that one narrow thing that we can't possibly fix it with just one bill and we can't possibly prevent unintended consequences with the passing of this one bill," Justus said.

She said she voted the bill out of committee so it could be perfected on the Senate floor.

An amendment was proposed by Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, that would raise the age from 18 to 21. Ridgeway said this could eliminate potentially complicated situations with high school students, but doesn't alleviate her concerns.

Most senators that spoke agreed that everyone was in favor of prosecuting individuals that witness an incident and fail to report it.

"I don't know how we can justify turning away from an incident like (Penn State)," Schmitt said.

The Senate adjourned without taking action on the bill. Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles County, said it could be taken up again later in the session.

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