In November, former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period, and head coach Joe Paterno was fired for not doing enough to stop it. Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine is now being investigated for alleged child molestation. Shouldn’t somebody do something? Maybe we need more criminal laws. How about a law that makes it a crime to witness child sexual abuse and not report it to the proper authorities?
That’s the gist of a bill by Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from Los Angeles: Withhold federal money from states until they pass laws imposing on all adults a new duty to report child abuse. Adults who see or hear something that suggests child abuse would have to report it, not merely to the alleged abuser’s supervisor or someone in a position of authority but to a peace officer. And if the adult failed to do so, he or she could face prison time.
We all want to protect children from molestation, and we all would prefer that adults who believe they have witnessed such abuse report it to law enforcement authorities. But adding a new crime with which to charge and incarcerate witnesses creates unnecessary and unproductive new problems without resolving the underlying concern. Bass is a champion of children and has devoted her career to thoughtful legislation to protect and support them, but her Speak Out to Stop Child Abuse Act (HR 3486) is in a different tradition: It’s a bill more the result of headlines and media frenzy than a well-considered policy initiative.
We saw something similar earlier this year with the various iterations of Caylee’s Law, which were reactions to public outrage over the not-guilty verdict rendered by a jury against a mother who failed to report that her child was missing. Making it a crime for a mother not to report her missing child within 24 hours may satisfy public demands on lawmakers to “just do something,” but it won’t make parents more responsible.
The Caylee bills would limit the population of people subject to the new criminal laws, so at least they have something in common with sensible laws that impose special duties on teachers, police officers or others in particular positions of trust or authority. Bass’ bill would impose new duties, and potential criminal penalties, on everyone in the nation over 17.
There are laws in place to protect children from sexual abuse, including laws against aiding and abetting, or misprision of a felony — cases in which witnesses become accomplices by actively thwarting investigations or enforcement. We don’t need to send people to prison for not reporting things they think they see. We need adults to think and act responsibly — things that no number of new criminal penalties can secure.