Missouri law leaves loophole in reporting child abuse, rape
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Missouri law leaves loophole in reporting child abuse, rape

Date: November 16, 2011
By: Stephanie Ebbs
State Capitol Bureau
Links: Missouri mandatory reporting statute

JEFFERSON CITY - If Joe Paterno were in Missouri, the Penn State scandal could play out in the same way.

That's because Missouri, like Pennsylvania, has no requirement in its law that university employees promptly notify child-protection services if they witness abuse or rape of a child on university property. The law only requires a report if the individual is, in some capacity, responsible for the care of minors.

The Penn State assistant football coach allegedly failed to notify child protection services after he said he saw another coach assault a minor on university grounds; if that were to happen in Missouri, the assistant coach would have been in compliance with his legal obligation to simply report the abuse to his superior. Reporting the incident up the chain-of-command instead of directly to authorities follows the provision in Missouri's mandatory reporting law.

But some, including the author of Missouri's child abuse law, say the 1975 law ought to be changed.

"I would support a change in it that would make it mandatory for everybody," said Ken Rothman, the former lawmaker who co-sponsored the bill that created the Missouri law.

A loophole in the law

Missouri is one of six states that, like Pennsylvania, has a loophole in the law that exempts some people who witness child abuse from having a legal obligation to call the authorities. Rather, the law requires that only superiors be notified by some mandated reporters.

The language creating the loophole is similar to Pennsylvania's mandated reporting law. Part of the discussion surrounding the Penn State child abuse scandal is that there was a witness to the abuse, but the abuse was reported up the chain-of-command possibly without coming to the attention of police or child-abuse investigators.

Although there is no obligation for a member of the general public to report suspected child abuse, Missouri's law does impose a reporting obligation on teachers, medical staff, child-care workers, ministers and others involved in child care or treatment. These mandated reporters account for 58 percent of reports of child abuse or neglect, according to a report from the Missouri Department of Social Services. 

The Missouri law requires the report be made to the state agency that handles child abuse investigations. But the law has an exception: It provides that the staffer of "a medical institution, school facility, or other agency" report to the "the person in charge or designated agent."

Other states, such as Illinois, require witnesses of child abuse or rape to report to both a superior and social services.

Like Rothman, the Senate's current Democratic leader said he thinks the exemption in the statute should be addressed.

"I don't think that this reporting it to a supervisor necessarily would address the seriousness of child abuse," said Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County.

Maintaining the status quo

Changing the language of the law might experience some pushback from schools, which generally favor the bottom-up reporting method, said Joy Oesterly, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst.

The staff attorney for the Missouri State Teachers Association, Kyle Farmer, said he doesn't think a change in the law would change the number of reported incidents.

"I don't think it would really change the outcome, quite honestly," Farmer said. "I like for my teachers to be able to send it to the principal or whoever it is in their school district just because I think that's what the law says, that's what it requires, but at the same time it actually doesn't prohibit teachers or any mandatory reporter from making that phone call."

The Child Abuse Prevention Association is one of several advocacy organizations that trains teachers in their mandated reporting responsibility. Jeanetta Issa, the association's CEO, said they train teachers to make the report but the ambiguous language leaves room for individual interpretation. 

"They need to make sure that a report gets made," Issa said. "They should sit together and make that phone call."

Oesterly said, "I think it's really important that whoever witnesses or whoever the child discloses to should be the one that actually makes the report."

A negative consequence of closing the loophole, Oesterly said, could be the overburdening of child abuse investigators. She said schools might want to keep the exemption so administrators can determine which incidents are severe enough to report.

There were 26,709 incidents reported to the child abuse hotline in 2010, and investigators determined that 27 percent of the reports warranted assistance or intervention, according to the social services report.

Callahan said he has not heard of of plans to change the state's abuse law during the Missouri General Assembly's upcoming legislative session.

"When policymakers decide whether that law needs to be changed or not I hope they will truly weigh out what other states have done and what the unintended consequences of enacting or not enacting new legislation might be," Oesterly said. "Because obviously everything has a cost and we wouldn't want to enact legislation that would create a bigger problem than already exists."