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Reporting Suspected Child Sex Abuse

In the wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, people are wondering what they can do, or what they should have done. When priests are accused of molesting the children in their care, parishioners wonder why they didn't see the signs and do something. It's natural for people to second-guess themselves. Wondering what they should have done - or should not have done -- is one sign of a responsible and engaged society. But sometimes the answers are not as clear as they appear to be in the Penn State story.

The Ocean City, New Jersey, prosecutor, Marlene Lynch Ford, released a statement urging citizens to report suspected abuse and reminding "all members of the public that we are obligated under New Jersey law to report suspected acts of child abuse to the authorities." Lynch said that all that is required to trigger the law is a "reasonable suspicion." But what constitutes a reasonable suspicion can vary enormously, depending on a person's age, gender and life experience.

New Jersey's reporting requirements differ from those in Pennsylvania, which give people the option of reporting suspected child sex abuse to their superiors. In contrast, New Jersey, like most other states, requires individuals who suspect child abuse to report their suspicions directly to law enforcement. However, the New Jersey law is similar to Pennsylvania's and those of other states in requiring individuals who hold certain types of jobs, especially those involving children, to file reports when they suspect child abuse or neglect.

Because this feature of Pennsylvania law appears to have been one of the reasons the alleged abuse continued for so many years, lawmakers in Pennsylvania will be looking at legislation that will require any adult with knowledge of child sex abuse to report it to law enforcement immediately.

Long-time head Penn State football coach Joe Peterno was fired over the scandal. However, he reported allegations to his superiors, as allowed by the Pennsylvania law.

Whether more strict reporting requirements will keep children safer is unknown. What is certain is that Pennsylvania will make a concerted effort to close the loophole in its laws.

Source: Asbury Park Press, "New Jersyans urged to report abuse suspicions", by Michelle Sahn, Nov. 11, 2011.

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