Reporting abuse: Encouraging people to come forward

In a move aimed at preventing a Jerry Sandusky-type sex crime scandal from occurring in Nevada, Assemblyman Pete Livermore, R-Carson City, said last week he’ll introduce a bill that he hopes will encourage more reporting of sex crimes against children.

Mr. Livermore said the bill is intended to address concerns from a Nevada physician who says there are legal impediments that discourage “mandatory reporters” from notifying police and child protection agencies of their suspicions about sex crimes and violent crimes against children.

Under state law, a long list of people must report neglect or sexual abuse of children “as soon as practically possible,” or within 24 hours. Failure do so is a misdemeanor.

Mandatory reporters include doctors, social workers, teachers, clergy, psychologists, therapists, athletic trainers, emergency medical technicians, hospital employees, drug counselors, coroners, school librarians, camp counselors, foster parents and attorneys (unless they acquired the information from a client accused of the abuse).

The Carson City legislator said the measure would reduce the liability of people who do report sex crimes, especially if they fail to immediately report their suspicions.

The proposal comes in response to the June 22 conviction of Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, on 45 sex offenses involving boys over a 15-year period. Another assistant coach, Mike McQueary, reported to head coach Joe Paterno after he saw Sandusky engaged in suspicious activity with a 10-year-old boy in a campus shower in 2002. But neither Mr. Paterno nor other university officials with whom he spoke ever contacted police. Trials are pending against officials who authorities allege did not report the crimes.

Mr. Livermore said his constituent wants to limit the legal liability of mandatory reporters who do not report crimes as promptly as they should.

Fellow Republican Assemblyman John Hambrick of Las Vegas warns the measure could backfire, allowing more children to be harmed while someone who’s supposed to report suspicions dawdles for 36 or 48 hours. But Mr. Hambrick agrees more people or colleges might report such crimes if they were not subject to penalties or lawsuits. “This is going to be a very thin line to walk,” Mr. Hambrick said.

“Like everything, the devil will be in the details,” agrees Nevada Children’s Advocate Vic Schultze, a deputy attorney general.

Precisely. But the goal should be to encourage people to report their knowledge or reasonable suspicions to proper authorities, while reserving punishment for those who willfully engage in any conspiracy to conceal. It serves no useful purpose if those who might otherwise report such information now hold their silence because they believe they could be punished for allowing 30 or even 50 hours to pass.

Reasonableness and decency can be hard to legislate. In the end, some room has to be left for sensible discretion.

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