Seeing Something, But Saying Nothing

By David Mandel (NY Daily News)
December 4, 2011

In the wake of the disturbing allegations at Penn State — and, more recently, Syracuse — it seems that all of us agree that people have a responsibility to report childhood sexual abuse. Our nation's laws, however, treat the issue very differently.

All states have laws designating members of certain professions — physicians, social workers, psychologists — as mandated reporters of child abuse. Yet only 18 states require that all persons must report suspected abuse or neglect.

Pennsylvania and New York, for example, mandate only that certain professionals must do so. Members of the clergy are required to report abuse in 26 states. And only a handful of states mandate reporting from any agency providing recreational sports or organized activities for children.

All this makes for a confusing system that makes it far too likely that sexual predators will never be identified and punished by the authorities. A national policy on reporting sexual abuse by all people in all states would remove any ambiguity — and make our children safer.

A lone shoe bomber yielded a national policy requiring millions of travelers to remove their shoes at airports. Fears of terrorists carrying liquid explosives resulted in the restriction of carrying no more than 3 oz. of liquid on board an airplane. The Transportation Security Administration spends billions annually enforcing policies based upon the actions of one or two people in a nation of more than 300 million.

We are told, "If you see something, say something." That should be as true for molesters as it is for terrorists. But while the latter has captured our attention, the former had not until the recent allegations at Penn State. Nor is the problem confined to one or two institutions.

It is widely believed that one in four girls and one in seven boys will experience some form of sexual abuse. Taking even a liberal interpretation of this data to account for variations across communities and cultural groups, it is a statement of fact that millions of children across the country are or will be victims of abuse.

So what would a national policy look like? New Jersey provides the most compelling model to date, requiring all citizens who have cause to suspect abuse to report it or face misdemeanor charges. Moreover, it protects those who report abuse from civil or criminal penalties.

Such a law could be enacted quickly and effectively across state lines. As a result, an expanded interpretation of the law to require reporting from all people, not just a broad category of licensed health and mental health professionals, may exponentially increase the number of reported allegations.

Yes, there will be risks to a national reporting system. These include potentially false memory reporting; intentional false allegations leveled by one spouse against the other in a bitter divorce and custody battle; a report of sexual abuse later proven to be completely erroneous. In all three instances, a report made against a person that becomes public, though later disproved, is not easily forgotten by family members, coworkers and the community at large — and may inexorably change an innocent person's life. Nevertheless, the benefits such a law would have for stopping child predators would far outweigh these drawbacks.

Too few child molesters and predators are reported, convicted and jailed. An expansion of the reporting law across all 50 states can surely result in better protection of children from sexual abuse. That is good for children, which makes it good for all of us.

Mandel is the CEO of OHEL Children's Home and Family Services in New York City.