Did he do what he could? Much of the controversy surrounding the Penn State child sex abuse case that led to the ousting of longtime coach Joe Paterno concerns this question.
But just what do football coaches — and for that matter, other people in positions of authority — have to report?
Here to answer that question is Kevin Hull, a Kitsap County deputy prosecutor. The so-called “mandatory reporting” law in Washington state is quite clear, he says.
Here’s Kevin’s take:
Are you a professional educator in a public school? A doctor? A nurse? A lawyer? A social services provider? A child care provider? A psychologist?
If so, you (and others) are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse under Washington law. Specifically, our statute in Washington states that when a mandatory reporter has reasonable cause to believe that a child has suffered abuse or neglect, he or she shall report such incident, or cause a report to be made, to the proper law enforcement agency. This past week’s events at Penn State University must serve as a reminder of the tragic consequences that can happen when adults fail to share what they know.
What occurred in State College, Pennsylvania is newsworthy because of the long list of alleged victims. Coupled with this is the centerpiece of Penn State’s football program, iconic head coach Joe Paterno. Earlier in the week, Coach Paterno said, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Pennsylvania’s Attorney General commented that Coach Paterno fulfilled his obligation to report under Pennsylvania state law. But Coach Paterno is now apparently wrestling with his own conscience and realizing he could have done more than fulfill his legal obligation.
Law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and juries are imperfect and don’t always get it right. It is agreed that the consequences to the falsely accused can be devastating. But does the fact that injustices do occur justify inaction? Our mandatory reporting statute in Washington requires that law enforcement be alerted to whatever knowledge that may exist if there is reasonable cause to believe that a child is being abused. At the very least, evidence that child abuse is occurring must be investigated. Prosecutors do not charge every suspect because of the appropriately high standard of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt. And juries will acquit a defendant when this burden of proof is not met. Outcomes are rarely perfect, but perfection is not the standard.
We know that most perpetrators of child abuse are either a friend or family member of the victim. The complicated dynamics that occur when a family member abuses a child creates conflict and clouds judgment. There is a common refrain that a delay in reporting from a child victim is somehow indicative of a lack of credibility. But if presumably responsible adults have knowledge of abuse and don’t have the wherewithal to alert law enforcement the expectation that a child speak up may be unreasonable.
If we can take a positive from the events at Penn State it should be that it is never too late to report suspected abuse. Adults must bear the responsibility of protecting children. Please look at RCW 26.44.030 to see if you are a mandatory reporter. And even if you may not be a mandatory reporter under the law, shouldn’t you, in any event, report to law enforcement what you may know about a child who may be suffering from abuse? The lesson being learned at Penn State today is that this answer to this question is yes.
Kevin Hull is the chief deputy prosecutor in the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Assault Unit.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)