published Monday, July 2nd, 2012

Georgia law requires more abuse reporting

ADDED ABUSE REPORTERS

• Any employee or volunteer who works with children at a hospital, school, social agency or similar facility

• Nurse aides

• Reproductive health care facility or pregnancy center employees or volunteers

• Clergy, unless the information is received during a confession

Source: Georgia House Bill 1176

Summer-camp volunteers, coaches and Sunday school teachers will be required to report boys' and girls' complaints of abuse under a new Georgia law that went into effect this week.

Those who don't report sexual or physical abuse or neglect could face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Before the law was amended, workers such as teachers, police and physicians were required to report suspicions of abuse. But parts of the law were vague and didn't state clearly everyone who is required to report, said Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.

Now anyone who volunteers or works with children is a "mandatory reporter," required to tell supervisors about any child abuse, ranging from physical injury to neglect and sexual abuse.

Georgia's move was spurred by the Penn State scandal, in which former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of abusing, raping and sodomizing young boys for years.

After Sandusky's arrest, Georgia and 29 other states scrambled to re-evaluate and tighten their mandatory reporting laws, officials said. Sandusky was convicted on 45 charges.

While at least 105 bills were proposed in statehouses across the country, only 10 states, including Georgia, enacted new mandatory-reporting laws. Tennessee didn't propose a revision in 2012.

"It was an opportunity to renew public awareness and education [about child abuse]," Carter said.

But critics question whether lawmakers acted out of fear, using an extreme example, and they worry authorities will be flooded with false allegations of child abuse.

"You take a bad set of facts and make a bad law," said Page Pate, an Atlanta-based defense attorney. "I don't think we're going to get any more valid child abuse reports."

Child advocates agree most people who learn about a child being abused would report the suspicion regardless of the law. But they praise the statute for bringing renewed attention to child abuse and hope it will promote more training on the signs of abuse.

Atlanta's Interfaith Children's Movement has been hosting training sessions for faith communities, teaching about the signs of abuse, what defines child abuse under state law and how to follow the right chain of command in reporting. Under the law, someone who suspects or hears of child abuse is required to go to a supervisor, who then must report to a child welfare agency or police.

Under the revised law, volunteers for clubs or summer programs will be responsible for reporting, whether they volunteer for one day or three months, said Pamela Perkins Carn, a coordinator for the Interfaith Children's Movement.

Public school officials don't expect many changes because employees already are required to report even if the law didn't require it.

"It's one of our 10 commandments, if you will," said James Fahrney Jr., principal at Davis Elementary School in Dade County. "That is one of the things we try to burn into our teachers' brains or anyone that works with children."

He said broadening the law is a good thing because it allows all employees who work with children to tell someone who can investigate, without fear of retaliation if their suspicion turns out to be wrong.

"We would rather over-report that ... than allowing that to be swept under the rug," he said.

But critics argue the law forces people with good judgment to make quick decisions for fear of being arrested if they don't.

"Are we criminalizing volunteers?" Pate asked. "It's dangerous whenever we make citizen volunteers investigate [potential criminal allegations]."

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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