Expert: Abuse reporter law created troubles in Pa.
Lansing — A bill that would increase the penalty for those in Michigan who failed to report child abuse or neglect could have unintended consequences, a University of Michigan law professor said Tuesday.
The testimony before the House Law and Justice Committee concerned legislation, inspired by the Larry Nassar abuse scandal, that would increase the penalty for mandatory reporters who fail to report child abuse or neglect from a misdemeanor to a two-year felony.
Lawyer Frank Vandervort told legislators that after similar legislation was enacted after the Penn State University sex abuse scandal, the number of reports increased in Pennsylvania, but the number of substantiated reports decreased and child deaths increased.
“You had your CPS (Child Protective Services) folks investigating a lot of low-quality reports,” said Vandervort, an academic researcher and clinical professor of law at UM. “And then the really serious cases you just get a system that’s overwhelmed and you’re going to the wrong cases.”
Vandervort cautioned legislators to treat the Nassar case as an “outlier,” rather than overwhelm the state system with laws that threaten a host of unintended consequences.
The testimony came about a week after a Department of Health and Human Services official testified the expected increase in reports could trigger a $54 million increase in staffing at the agency.
Concerns about the bill and others will be considered, Rep. Klint Kesto said Tuesday. He expects the committee on Wednesday will consider “a ton” of amendments and substitutes to the House bills.
Kesto, R-Commerce Township, has urged deliberate and focused consideration of the bills introduced to address gaps in the system that allowed Nassar to persist for years.
“Let’s not have a knee-jerk reaction that’s inappropriate,” Kesto told reporters. “That’s a lot of times what happens in the Legislature, and then we come back to amend laws.”
Nassar, a former sports medicine doctor at Michigan State University, will spend the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty to child pornography and sexual assault charges. He’s been accused of sexually abusing more than 250 women and girls under the guise of medical treatment, some of whom say their complaints to university officials went unheeded.
Lawmakers introduced an additional four bills Tuesday that would create a state office to serve as a resource and advocate for college Title IX offices and students going through the Title IX process. They also would encourage higher education institutions to develop five-year campus sexual assault response improvement plans; instill protections that would shield student sexual assault victims from suspension or expulsion; and exempt from disclosure identifying information regarding sexual abuse victims filing anonymous civil suits.
Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, said the bill that would improve campus sexual assault response would include a matching grant to help institutions fund the improvements, an allowance that Kesto found problematic.
“These universities and institutions should have been doing this, period,” Kesto said. “It’s like, hey, here’s a carrot for you to do the right thing.”
Three representatives from the Michigan Catholic Conference also testified at the hearings, sharing with legislators procedures put in place in Michigan dioceses following the clergy sex abuse scandal in 2002. The measures include background checks for all employees and volunteers, annual audits to ensure compliance from parishes and schools, the requirement that all allegations of sexual abuse be reported to authorities, and a three-hour training on recognizing and reporting sexual abuse.
While dioceses perform state background searches, churches and schools are barred from tapping into the FBI fingerprint database because it requires legal language in state law that permits private nonprofits access to those records, said Candace Neff, director of communications for the Diocese of Gaylord.
Neff said the FBI database is considered the “most reliable,” and while it’s available to schools, state law has no allowances for access by churches or youth organizations, even if they’re willing to pay.
“To do the best we can to protect children, we need you to introduce and pass legislation that will allow us access to those records,” she said.