The Penn State Child Sex Abuse Scandal and the Legal Obligation to Report

Unless you have avoided picking up a newspaper, turning on the television or conversing with friends, family or co-workers recently, you probably have heard about the scandal surrounding Penn State University and the sexual abuse allegations against former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. The scandal, however, extends beyond the football program and has resulted in criminal charges being filed against former athletic director, Tim Curley, and finance and business administrator, Gary Schultz. The charges against these two individuals are perjury and failure to report child abuse. The allegations surrounding the Penn State football program and the charges against its administration, aside from becoming major national news, have brought significant attention to the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law and have raised a number of questions about who is required to report child abuse and when.

The current Child Protective Services Law in Pennsylvania requires that someone who, in the course of their employment, comes into contact with children must make a report to the appropriate Children & Youth Service or police when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been a victim of abuse. The Law further goes on to specifically list a number of categories of persons who are required to report suspected abuse including, but not limited to:

  • Any licensed physician, osteopath
  • Medical Examiner, Coroner
  • Funeral Director
  • Dentist
  • Optometrist
  • Chiropractor
  • Podiatrist
  • Intern
  • Registered Nurse
  • Licensed Practical Nurse
  • Hospital personnel engaged in the admission, examination, care or treatment of persons
  • Christian Science practitioner
  • Member of the Clergy
  • School administrator, teacher, school nurse
  • Social services worker
  • Day-care center worker or any other child-care or foster-care worker
  • Mental health professional
  • Peace officer or law enforcement official

This list is not meant to be exclusive of others, but provides specific examples of those required to report. The Law also provides that any person may, even if not included in the above list, report suspected child abuse, although the Law does not impose a specific duty to do so.

The language of the Child Protective Services Law, while seemingly clear in its intent to require those in contact with children to report abuse, does leave open the question of what constitutes contact with children during one’s course of employment. Does it require constant contact? Occasional contact? It has been found that incidental contact with children during employment is not enough to trigger a reporting duty under the Law. In one case decided by a federal court interpreting this law, the Court found that a photo lab worker in a retail store was not under the purview of the Child Protective Services Law. Because the photo lab worker did not have regular contact with children during the course of her employment, she did not have a duty to report suspected abuse she perceived from photographs she processed in the lab.

Much has been made of the legal duty to report child abuse in the context of the allegations against the Penn State administrators. The question has been raised by at least one of the administrator's attorneys as to whether a crime was actually committed by the administrator’s failure to report the information provided to him by Joe Paterno and the former graduate assistant who allegedly witnessed the sexual abuse of the child. It has also been pointed out by legal journals and commentaries that in 2002, when these alleged failure-to-report crimes occurred, the law was different than it is today. The 2002 law required that the abused child come directly in contact with a person in his or her professional capacity in order for that person to be considered a mandatory reporter. The law was then amended in 2007 to broaden the reporting requirements and include those who received the information second-hand. 

Another interesting point surrounding the Child Protective Services Law is that, according to the prior law under which the Penn State administrators have been charged, if they are found to have had a duty to report that they failed to meet, their offenses will be graded as summary. A summary offense in Pennsylvania carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $300 fine. Under the current law, the offense has been upgraded to a third degree misdemeanor for a first offense which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. 

The charges against the Penn State administrators have raised a number of questions about the mandatory reporting requirements for child abuse in Pennsylvania bringing widespread attention to the issue. As a result, our legislature may be prompted to look closely at the current state of the law to ensure it has its intended effect.

A number of clients and friends have asked me about some of the legal issues surrounding the Penn State matter. While I hope this post has provided some clarification with regard to the legal obligation to report suspected child abuse, it goes without saying that the moral obligation of those involved in this tragedy has been and will continue to be the subject of ongoing discussion and debate in countless homes, offices and media outlets. 

Aaron Zeamer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas including Employment Law and Civil Litigation.

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