Stricter Child-Abuse-Reporting Laws May Not Have Prevented the Penn State Scandal From Continuing
Even if you believe exiled Penn State FB Coach Mike McQueary's 11th-hour revelation that he did intervene in the child rape that he says he witnessed in the locker room showers in March 2002, it still doesn't change the fact that after that incident, Jerry Sandusky continued to have access to, and continued to molest young boys for another nine years.
On Monday, I spent several hours being interviewed by Fox News, for a special report that is slated to air this weekend, and throughout the interview, the questions they kept coming back to were: "Why didn't Coach Paterno do more?" And, "Why aren't McQueary and Paterno in legal trouble over this?" As I told Fox News, I'm an attorney, not an investigator, a shrink or criminologist. I know the law, and under current Pennsylvania law, both coaches fulfilled their legal duties with regard to reporting the alleged abuse. This is because Pennsylvania is one of only a few U.S. states that don't require those who witness child abuse to report directly to police or child services.
Already, Pennsylvania legislators are taking steps to tighten the state's child-abuse-reporting statute, and there is also talk of Congress passing a stricter federal law. Currently, under the federal Cleary Act, institutions that receive federal funding are required to report all crime information to the U.S. Department of Education, but again, this does little, if anything, to stop an ongoing pattern of abuse such as the one Jerry Sandusky is alleged to have perpetrated. But regardless of whether Pennsylvania's child-abuse-reporting law was more in line with the majority of other states, are those laws tough enough to protect our children?
After giving my Fox News interview, I was curious to see what the child-abuse-reporting requirements were in my home state of New Jersey, so I looked them up, and I was a little disappointed. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.14 makes failing to report child abuse a disorderly persons offense, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail, and a $1000 fine (but almost nobody gets the maximum). I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, perhaps the NJ law is appropriate, if the abuse someone failed to report was a parent who overzealously reacted to catching his teenager shoplifting—after all, when I was in school they still paddled kids in the hallways. But in the case of what McQueary is believed to have done, six months in jail and a $1000 fine isn't enough.
So the next problem with having stricter child-abuse-reporting laws, is that unless we move to a complicated, tiered approach — e.g. the way homicides are classified as murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide — the laws will either be too strict or not strict enough, depending on the type of abuse. Also, these laws would need to specify exactly what conduct rises to the level of abuse that must be reported. In other words, if a school teacher sees a student with curious bruises on a regular basis, but has no direct knowledge of abuse, what is that teacher's reporting responsibility?
The McQueary incident is pretty clear cut, because he alleges that he saw Jerry Sandusky anally raping a ten-year-old boy. Turning to Joe Paterno, however, the situation is different, because from what we know now, Paterno saw nothing. So then, JoePa's next actions would have been guided by his own perception of Mike McQueary's credibility.
Joe Paterno is old school. He never had a reputation for playing fast or loose with rules. Remember Paterno's demeanor in that television promo a few years ago where all the Big 10 coaches admonished the fans to behave themselves "before, during, and after the game"? That being the case, I wonder whether the reason that JoePa didn't do more — as he wished he had done, in hindsight — is that he questioned the credibility of the young grad assistant Mike McQueary. From what I've seen of Mike McQueary, I know I do.