Michigan law adds mandatory reporters after Nassar scandal
Lansing — Physical and occupational therapists and athletic trainers will now be required to report suspected child abuse or neglect under a new Michigan law that follows the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this week signed the legislation, which comes more than four years after Nassar, a former sports doctor who treated athletes at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, was sentenced to a virtual life sentence for his conviction on child pornography charges and sexually abusing athletes.
During victim impact statements in 2018, several athletes testified that over the course of Nassar's more than two decades of sexual abuse they had told adults what was happening, including coaches and athletic trainers, and it went unreported.
The therapists and trainers join other professionals previously required to report their suspicions or knowledge of abuse, which include medical doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, school administrators, family therapists and school counselors. These professions are expected to be able to identify signs of abuse and understand how to report it.
Anyone can report to Children's Protective Services if they believe a child is being abused or neglected, but the new legislation adds physical and occupational therapists, athletic trainers and physical therapist assistants to those professionals required to do so.
Previous forms of the legislation were criticized for not including coaches on the mandatory reporters list. A concern was the loose definition of coaches, which can sometimes be part-time workers or simply a volunteer.
Former Michigan State University gymnastics coach Kathie Klages was sentenced to 90 days in jail in August 2020 on felony and misdemeanor counts of lying to police about her knowledge of Nassar's sexual abuse.
But the state court of appeals overturned her conviction, ruling that nothing Klages told investigators was “material” to the attorney general’s investigation into the university’s handling of Nassar’s abuse in terms of preventing it. The decision did not dispute the testimony of the two women who said that when they were teenagers in 1997, they told Klages that Nassar had abused them and Klages made them afraid to report the abuse.
The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence supports the expansion of mandatory reporters, but believes it's incomplete without including coaches, Executive Director Sarah Prout Rennie said.
In sports where children are separated from their parents for long stretches of time, coaches can be the only person that can help them, she said.
“These folks are often serving as parental figures,” Prout Rennie said. “These people are really the only people that they have access to come forward. They really need to be responsible to reporting sexual assaults.”
What Nassar did and what the victims endured is tragic, bill sponsor Rep. Roger Hauck said, but the state has to learn from what happened and fix it so it doesn't happen again.
“I feel so sorry for all the victims,” the Republican lawmaker from Union Township said. “Hopefully, this will put another strong deterrent from somebody doing this especially when you have athletic trainers in the room and seeing what’s going on.”
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Nichols reported from Lansing.