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Maine Bills Seek to Tighten Abuse Reporting Requirements
05/16/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Several high-profile cases of long-term sexual abuse - from the Vatican to Bangor, Maine - have put the spotlight on procedures for reporting cases of suspected child abuse and neglect. A pair of bills originally heard by Maine lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee got another hearing today before the Judiciary Committee. The bills would tighten child abuse reporting requirements, and sharpen the penalties for failure to report suspected abuse. But as Jennifer Mitchell reports, the proposals face opposition from the medical community.

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Tackling the persistent problem of child abuse has been a major plank in Gov. Paul LePage's platform. His own bill, LD 1523, was heard today, along with the Democratic-sponsored LD 1024. Together, the bills seek to crack down on abuse cases that could have been prevented if suspicions had been reported sooner by those in a position to do so.

"Children need adults in their worlds to keep them safe. There is no greater responsibility than this," said Therese Cahill-Low, director of the state Office of Child and Family Services.

Cahill-Low says the current mandated reporter rules, as written, don't really have any teeth. Thirty-two types of professionals in the state, ranging from educators, to doctors and clergy, are required to report any suspected abuse. But doctors, Cahill-Low says, are falling down on the job.

"We have had young children die or suffer serious developmental issues, after injuries or medical problems have been seen and documented by professionals, but not reported to the department," she said.

Under the bills, a mandated reporter such as a physician, who "appears" to have dropped the ball in reporting suspected abuse, would face disciplinary action by his or her own licensing board, based on a case made by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the case of children's camps, failure on the part of a responsible counselor to follow the necessary reporting steps could result in the revocation of the camp's license and the closure of the whole facility.

Andy MacLean of the Maine Medical Association, says it's bad enough that some of the language in the bills is hazy and unclear, but what's worse is that failure to report suspected abuse would now be a Class E Crime. "And it's an extraordinary step to criminalize a breach of a duty that really amounts to professional negligence and likely involves no criminal intent," he said.

And others are raising similar concerns. Parents could be unfairly accused of abuse due to sweeping language in the governor's bill, says Jill Barkely of ACLU of Maine.

The bill lists a number of injuries that would automatically require a caregiver to report suspected abuse in children under 6 months, or any child unable to walk or crawl. Among these, says Barkley, are swellings, poisonings, burns, and broken bones. "Wile any of these conditions could be caused by abuse or neglect, they could be caused by an accident," she said.

Such legislation she says, may keep some parents from seeking medical attention.

But proponents of the bills cite numerous examples of reporting gone wrong, from abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, to decades-long abuse surrounding Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, to a case closer to home: It's been less than two years since Bangor's Rev. Robert Carlson jumped to his death from a bridge, as allegations of abuse surfaced, stretching back more than 35 years.

Elizabeth Ward Saxl, director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Violence, says these are just the cases people know about. "I wish that problems with mandated reporting were limited to the few high profile cases that have been in the news in past years," she said. "Unfortunately, we know the problem is far more widespread."

The bills will go to work session in the coming weeks.


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