Child advocacy groups speak out against proposed reporting laws

Saturday, March 19, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Child advocacy groups say proposed changes to the state's child-protection laws could decrease the number of neglect and abuse cases reported in Missouri by making the criteria for reporting such crimes too specific.

Under the legislation, doctors, teachers, social workers and others who are required to report certain kinds of abuse would have to recognize specific signs before calling the state's hot line. Those include such indicators as severe bruising, burns and malnutrition.

Teachers and counselors also would be required to call the hot line when they have evidence that teens "under the age of consent" are having sex. But the proposal doesn't define the state's age of consent, which is different depending on the age of each person involved.

Critics say the measure would undermine the ability of social workers, doctors and teachers to use their own discretion in reporting suspected abuse. The definition of abuse is too specific, they say, and there's no reason for the provision about underage sex.

Colleen Coble, executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the word "severe" might cause people to wait too long to report abuse that could be stopped before it gets that bad.

"There should be reports of abuse before it becomes classified as 'severe,"' she said. "We're talking about injury, harm and neglect to a child."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Richard Byrd, R-St. Louis County, said he wants to protect teens 15 and under from being sexually abused and help clear up vague language in the law. He said doctors and teachers aren't sure what "abuse" really means under Missouri's current law.

Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association, said the list of criteria could prevent teachers from reporting abuse because they're not familiar with everything on it.

"The danger that you get into is when someone who suspects abuse says, 'I think something's not right here, but I have to look at the list first,"' Fajen said.

Byrd said he plans to reword the legislation, but keep the word "severe" because without it, doctors would feel obligated to report such things as sunburns and skinned knees.

Critics also question the provision requiring teachers and counselors to report knowledge of sex between underage teens. They said the age requirement could discourage teens from reporting sexual assaults.

"It wouldn't take very long for word to spread [among teens] that if you talk about a sexual assault, you'll be reported," Coble said. "It's hard enough for adult women to deal with violence in their relationships."

The Department of Social Services estimates the measure could cost the state an extra $269,000 a year because six extra staffers would have to be hired to answer the flood of calls reporting consensual sex among teens.

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