It's a simple proposition, so straightforward that it hardly seems like something that has to be legislated.
If you have reasonable cause to believe a child is being abused, you have a duty to report it. To police. Or to child protective services.
All 50 states have some form of that mandatory reporting law. Most are simple. Plainly stated. Little ambiguity.
Yet, child abuse experts say, the scandal swirling around allegations of child sexual assault at Penn State University — events that forced out football coach Joe Paterno and president and former UNL Chancellor Graham Spanier — shows how carelessly or callously even well-educated officials regard that duty.
"Nobody wants to think it possible, so they sweep it away," said Dr. Suzanne Haney, medical director at Project Harmony, an Omaha center that investigates child abuse.
"By reporting it, by doing something, you're going to disrupt the status quo. Unfortunately, some people make the decision that preserving the status quo is more important than protecting a child."
That isn't just a Penn State problem.
Omaha-area sex abuse cases have had many of the characteristics of the State College, Pa., scandal: A prominent person — such as the accused, Jerry Sandusky. A seemingly noble profession or cause — in Sandusky's case, his mentoring program for troubled youths.
In the Omaha area, the list of sex abusers has included:
A pediatrician and founder of the Omaha Gladiators youth sports organization — Dr. Daniel Schrein, convicted in 1991 of molesting five boys who once were his patients.
A priest — Daniel Herek, convicted in 1998 and sent to prison for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy, one of four altar boys who accused him.
A founder of a horse-riding club for children — Victor Putz, once named Citizen of the Year in Bellevue. He was convicted in 2001 and sent to prison for sexually assaulting one club member, a 12-year-old girl.
The list goes on. Douglas County prosecutors currently have sex abuse cases against the former head of an Omaha youth football program and a former Omaha Public Schools middle school teacher.
"Often, these are iconic figures in their community," said Diane Moyer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. "They groom not only children, they groom society as well. So you can't possibly imagine that this person who is getting community awards, who helps everyone, could commit these unspeakable acts."
That's a major reason all 50 states passed mandatory reporting laws — to require adults to take action on behalf of victims who feel powerless against their perpetrators.
Moyer, whose central Pennsylvania office has fielded dozens of calls since the Penn State scandal broke, credited Nebraska with having one of the broader mandatory reporting laws in the nation.
Besides certain professionals — physicians, nurses, school employees and social workers — Nebraska requires any "other person" to report if they have "reasonable cause" to believe that child abuse has occurred. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail.
Pennsylvania and other states, including Iowa, limit their reporting requirements to certain professionals.
Most sex abuse is insidious and isn't investigated until people spot more subtle signs in a child, Moyer said. Sleeplessness. Depression. Moodiness. Bad grades. Withdrawal. Lack of appetite. In short, she said: A child you don't recognize.
By contrast, the Penn State case didn't require such careful observation. Witnesses reported that they saw Sandusky sexually assaulting boys in a locker room shower a decade or more before his indictment. A janitor told his supervisor he saw Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy. A graduate assistant told a grand jury he saw Sandusky raping another boy.
When that assistant told Paterno what he saw, Paterno told his athletic director.
Because he did so, a grand jury concluded, Paterno legally fulfilled Pennsylvania's reporting requirements.
But moral questions of why Paterno and others didn't go directly to police have dogged the case.
"I wish I had done more," Paterno said in a statement Wednesday.
Moyer and Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said mandatory reporting laws are designed to protect not only children but the reporter as well — be it a janitor or JoePa.
Most states, including Nebraska, include a provision protecting people from being sued for making reports.
Despite that, experts say, the decision to report often becomes unnecessarily layered and loaded. Bosses like Paterno don't want to believe a top assistant could do something "so dark and so sinister," Moyer said. Administrators fear harming reputations.
In the latest local case, authorities have scrutinized whether OPS administrators neglected their duty to report when it came to students' allegations against former Nathan Hale middle school teacher Shad Knutson.
Kleine said no decision has been made.
"First and foremost, we want to get to the bottom of exactly what (Knutson) has done," said Kleine, who has charged Knutson with abusing five students. "Then we'll make a decision on the reporting issue."
OPS has defended its nonreporting — saying officials were never advised by any student or parent that Knutson sexually assaulted a student.
On allegations of other lewd behavior, administrators emphasized the point of Nebraska law that says they needed "reasonable cause" to believe abuse had occurred in order to make a report.
Haney, the Project Harmony medical director, said the "reasonable cause" clause doesn't require untrained people to substantiate, or even investigate, suspected child abuse.
Project Harmony and law enforcement agencies have investigators who are trained to interview children, to help them feel comfortable enough to open up. And they're trained to ferret out the rare case when a victim has been coached to allege abuse.
"A lot of people feel like they have to prove it," Haney said. "That's not the case at all — the law empowers you to make the report. The vast majority of these cases the kids don't ever tell, or don't tell till much later. Somebody needs to be the one to give them a voice."
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