Koster's knee-jerk reaction
December 07, 2011
Commentary by
Rep. Mike Kelley of Lamar,
District 126 - Republican
(serving the counties of Jasper, Barton, Dade and Polk)

Everyone has heard of the tragic events that occurred on the campus of Penn State University at State College, PA. Adding to the embarrassment to that institution regarding the former assistant football coach accused of years of sexual abuse of young boys is the apparent failure by Penn State's then head football coach, Joe Paterno, and several of the universities' top administrators to properly report these allegations to authorities.

Last week, Missouri's Attorney General Chris Koster urged the Missouri Legislature to expand Missouri's so-called "mandatory reporter" law. The "mandatory reporter" law currently requires members of professions that deal directly with children to report suspected abuse or neglect of children to the Missouri Children's Division, a state agency.

Mr. Koster wants to make every adult in the state a mandatory reporter.

There is a regrettable tendency in America for politicians to overact to tragic events by immediately seeking new laws that they believe might stop these terrible things from happening again. Although, I believe that Attorney General Koster earnestly believes that such a change in law would help protect children, I have some serious doubts about this conclusion even though 18 states already have these laws that require reporting by everyone.

Missouri has had some version of a mandatory reporter law since the mid-1970s. Our current law requires physicians, other health practitioners, mental health professionals, social workers, child-care workers, juvenile officers, probation or parole officers, ministers and peace officers to report to the State authorities information about possible child abuse if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse.

Those people who are currently required to make these reports are subject to criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor which can result in a year in jail and a fine of $1,000 if they fail to report. I would point out that generally these individuals are professionals who have some training or expertise in identifying the signs of child abuse and neglect. Incidentally, most of those who failed to report at Penn State were required under their law to make a report but failed to do so.

I believe that there are serious problems related to expanding this reporting requirement to the entire population. First of all, the average person who is not trained in this area might have trouble distinguishing child abuse from appropriate discipline by a parent but would report it anyway, since not doing so technically would be considered a crime.

If you were in Walmart and saw a woman applying two swats to the rear end of her 6-year-old child, would you feel compelled to report this to the authorities, especially if you faced a possible jail sentence if you didn't? Contrary to what some people believe, appropriate corporal punishment to children remains lawful in Missouri. I question who is qualified, other than a professional, to recognize physical or emotional abuse of a child in a brief contact. This proposed change in the law would require everyone to report abuse of a child if there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse. What defines "reasonable cause?"

My fear is that the frequency of false or well-meaning but inaccurate reports would increase. Even under our present system, out of the 2.9 million reports of child abuse in our nation annually, about two thirds of those reports were "unfounded."

Another concern I have for requiring anyone and everyone to report these incidences would be the glut of child abuse reports that would result. They would be a burdon for understaffed investigators in the Children's Division to sort through. Legitimate reports of abuse might get overlooked under these circumstances.

I would not suggest that there is no room for improvement in the current child abuse reporting system. I certainly believe the system can be improved. I have real concerns about any proposed legislation that under threat of prosecution would mandate all ordinary citizens to make decisions that are more reasonably left to professionals. I also believe that any changes in the law should be based on what is best for these children and should not be driven by an over-reaction to what recently happened in Pennsylvania.

Editor's note: A child welfare information gateway may be found here. Its database is searchable by state.

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