Penn State Lesson: What to Do If You Suspect Sexual Abuse of a Child

PHOTO: Jerry Sandusky being carried by players after the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas.
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Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary's assertion, now disputed by police, that he talked to the police after the alleged sexual assault of a young boy by former coach Jerry Sandusky raises the important question: What is the right way to handle such cases?

It turns out that every state in the nation has its own specific laws on reporting the sexual abuse of a child. If there is any unifying theme, it is that the person who has "reasonable cause" to believe a child has been abused must notify law enforcement officials and child welfare agencies. People who work in certain fields or at certain institutions have to notify their boss, who is then required to report the abuse, usually within 48 hours.

"Anybody may report it," says Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. "States want people who are in a position to become aware of child sexual abuse to report" their allegation.

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Almost every state also lists specific professions, especially those licensed by the state, that are expressly required to notify both the police and child welfare agencies.

For example, the state of Vermont lists 34 different professions or jobs in which instances of child abuse or neglect must be reported within 24 hours. This includes such professions as doctors, dentists, nurses, teachers, librarians, social workers, camp counselors, and clergy.

But Vermont is even more specific for certain professionals who are required to report any abuse immediately. This includes 15 specific types of jobs such as any involved in medicine, hospital work, teaching, child care, or social work.

Yet other states, such as Washington, include any adult who has reasonable cause to believe that a child who resides with them has suffered severe abuse. The state of Tennessee requires any neighbor, relative, friend, "or any other person" who knows about sexual abuse or has a reasonable cause to suspect it.

Some states, however, including New York and Pennsylvania, require individuals in institutions such as schools to report abuse to the person in charge, not the authorities. Then, the person in charge – in Penn State's case, the athletic director and the individual in charge of the Campus Police – are required to notify the police and child welfare agency.

What is considered "reasonable cause"?

Very simply put, it is what a reasonable person would think, says Ms. Atwell-Davis. She says that is one of the reasons why so few states try to define reasonable cause. "There is such a wide range of cases and facts, it's hard to generalize," she says.

For example, since child sexual abuse is rarely witnessed, most states rely on physical evidence or a child's behavior. A child may have bruises or may be bleeding in an area that indicates a sexual assault. Someone familiar with a child may notice they have suddenly become withdrawn and non-communicative.

But bruises alone may not mean anything. "Maybe someone sees bruises on a little girl's thighs and thinks she has been attacked when she may have just been climbing a tree," says Atwell-Davis.

Is it sufficient just to go to the police?

Many states have at least two requirements – the police and a child welfare agency or department of human services.

"The child welfare or protective agency can look into the child's family situation," says Atwell-Davis, "while the police can find the offender and prosecute him."

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