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07 December 2011

Kelley: Reservations About Expanding "Mandatory Reporting" Law

You have probably heard of the tragic events that recently occurred on the campus of Penn State University at State College, Pennsylvania. A former assistant football coach has been accused of years of sexual abuse of young boys. Adding to the embarrassment to that institution is the apparent failure by Penn State’s then head football coach, Joe Paterno, and several of the universities’ top administrators to properly report these allegations of abuse to authorities. Last week, Missouri’s Attorney General Chris Koster urged the Missouri Legislature to expand Missouri’s so-called “mandatory reporter” law. The “mandatory reporter” law currently requires members of professions that deal directly with children to report suspected abuse or neglect of children to the Missouri Children’s Division, a state agency. Mr. Koster wants to make every adult in the state a mandatory reporter.

There is a regrettable tendency in America for politicians to overact to tragic events by immediately seeking new laws that they believe might stop these terrible things from happening again. Although, I believe that Attorney General Koster earnestly believes that such a change in law would help protect children, I have some serious doubts about this conclusion.

Missouri has had some version of a mandatory reporter law since the mid-1970s. Our current law requires physicians, other health practitioners, mental health professionals, social workers, child-care workers, juvenile officers, probation or parole officers, ministers and peace officers to report to the State authorities information about possible child abuse if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse. Those people who are currently required to make these reports are subject to criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor which can result in a year in jail and a fine of $1,000 if they fail to report. I would point out that generally these individuals are professionals who have some training or expertise in identifying the signs of child abuse and neglect. Incidentally, most of those who failed to report at Penn State are required under their law to make a report but failed to do so.

I believe that there are serious problems related to expanding this requirement to the entire population. First of all, the average person who is not trained in this area might have trouble distinguishing child abuse from appropriate discipline by a parent. If you are in Wal-Mart and saw a woman applying two swats to the rear end of her 6 year old child, would you feel compelled to report this to the authorities – especially if you faced a possible jail sentence? Contrary to what some people believe, appropriate corporal punishment to children remains lawful in Missouri. Even though no one is required to report appropriate discipline administered to a child, expanding this law to everyone will certainly increase the number of reports to Missouri Children’s Division of conduct which is clearly lawful. Likewise, I question who is qualified, other than a professional, to recognize “emotional” abuse of a child in a brief contact. This proposed change in the law would require everyone to report emotional abuse of a child if there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse.

My fear is that the frequency of false reports would increase. Only 18 states have required reporting by everyone. Even under our present system, out of the 2.9 million reports of child abuse in our nation annually, about 2/3rd of those reports were “unfounded”. If Missouri adopted a requirement that everyone was required to report whenever they had reasonable cause to suspect abuse, the frequency of the unfounded reports would certainly increase because of the fear of being prosecuted for a crime.

Another concern I have for requiring everyone to report these incidences would be the glut of child abuse reports that would result and in turn make it more difficult for understaffed investigators in the Children’s Division to sort through large numbers of unfounded allegations made by people. Legitimate reports of abuse might get overlooked under these circumstances.

I would not suggest that there is no room for improvement in the current child abuse reporting system. I certainly believe the system can be improved. I have real concerns about any proposed legislation that under threat of prosecution would mandate all ordinary citizens to make decisions that are more reasonably left to professionals. I also believe that any changes in the law should be based on what is best for these children and should not be driven by an over-reaction to what recently happened in Pennsylvania.

Visiting the Capitol

I welcomed many visitors to the Capitol this year. I always enjoy it when constituents visit, and I want to thank all who made the journey. If you ever find yourself in or around Jefferson City at any time during the year, please feel free to visit us!

Thank you for reading this Interim Report. If you happen to see me in and around the District this summer, please feel free to introduce yourself and say hello! If you know anyone who would be interested in receiving this Interim Capitol Report, please click the “Capitol Report Signup” button on my member home page at and enter the appropriate information to receive the Capitol Report.

Finally, if we can ever be of any assistance to you at your State Capitol during the coming months even while we are in the Interim Session, please do not hesitate to contact us at: 573.751.2165 or you can reach my legislative assistant, Tammy, at: tammy{dot}weber{at}house{dot}mo{dot}gov.

Until my next update, I am, and remain, in your service.

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