February 24, 2012

BECAUSE A DRUGSTORE film processor alerted police to photos of blindfolded and gagged children, a Los Angeles teacher has been stopped from allegedly sexually exploiting students. The teacher was arrested last month after police say they found DNA evidence linking him to the abuse of 23 students.

This shocking episode, along with the Penn State University case, in which school officials are accused of covering up allegations that a former assistant coach raped a boy, again raise questions about how to prevent and deal with such crimes.

Teachers, physicians, day-care employees and other adults who are in close contact with children are typically and correctly required to report incidences of suspected abuse. Some states levy criminal sanctions against those who fail to carry out this duty. Eighteen, including Maryland, require all adults to report “known or suspected” abuse.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) has introduced a bill that would withhold federal funds from states unless they enact laws requiring all adults to report. Some advocates worry that such an approach could be counterproductive, overwhelming government agencies with false or flimsy allegations that could take resources away from cases of abuse. Educating adults about the law and about signs of abuse is key to holding perpetrators accountable and getting children the care that they need.

Providing a clear path for reporting is also essential. One smart possibility: Create a nationwide emergency number, similar to the 911 system, that would direct calls to local authorities. States could designate the entity – such as a child services agency or law enforcement – that would receive the calls.

The approach used by the National Children’s Alliance (NCA) should be considered a model. The NCA certifies and audits “children’s advocacy centers,” which bring together social workers, law enforcement officers, health professionals and a variety of other specialists once an abuse complaint has been filed. A professional trained in questioning children gathers information as law enforcement officers look on, reducing the need for repeated, and often traumatic, interrogations. These centers also serve as first responders for the child, providing health care and counseling, as well as follow-up services. Although NCA claims some 750 centers nationwide, including several in Virginia and Maryland and one in the District, the organization reports that 1,000 counties (about one-third of all those in the country) have no access to them.

States also should consider hiring a child protective services ombudsman to monitor, report and address systemic failures. Only half currently do.

These initiatives are not free, which is why Congress should allow more of the approximately $700 million available in the Crime Victims Fund to be used to advance them. The fund is replenished through court fees and fines.