“We were able to hold Mr. Carraway accountable for his actions . . . but what we have not done is further close the loophole that would make us able to say to parents that we can assure to them that this will never happen again,” Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) recently told a panel of state lawmakers.
The General Assembly is considering whether mandatory reporters — health practitioners, police officers, educators and human service workers — should face a misdemeanor charge and up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine for failing to report child abuse if they have “actual knowledge” that it has occurred.
Maryland and Wyoming are the only states that do not impose criminal penalties for failure to report, which can lead to felony charges in several states, including Arizona, Minnesota and Connecticut.
“It’s really unconscionable. Why should Maryland be out there with Wyoming?” said Timothy F. Maloney, an attorney who has filed a lawsuit against the local school system in the Carraway case. “We had all kinds of warning signs, complaints by parents, children, teachers. He was walking the halls in pajamas, for God’s sake. This situation cries out for reform.”
Proposals to create a misdemeanor failure-to-report charge have been unsuccessful in Annapolis for at least the past five years. The Senate approved the legislation last year and this year, but there is strong opposition from key House lawmakers, who say they don’t like the idea of locking up someone for not reporting abuse.
“It’s a very dangerous bill,” said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who attempted to kill the legislation in committee Thursday but could not muster enough votes.
Vallario suggested that mandatory reporters who face a potential misdemeanor charge could invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called to testify against an attacker, potentially jeopardizing abuse prosecutions.
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), the vice chairwoman of the committee, said her reservations center on whether the legislation is needed, noting that mandatory reporters can lose their licenses for not reporting.
“I think we have enough on the books,” Dumais said. “We have to be careful and balance whether to put in statute another crime and whether this is the best way to address the question of child-abuse reporting.” She said she thinks the focus should be on training for mandatory reporters and ensuring that they know what signs to look out for.
Advocates are quick to point out that some mandatory reporters, including school superintendents, do not have licensing boards.
“It’s frustrating to watch these cases year after year and not have adequate enforcement mechanisms in place in Maryland,” said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.
This year’s debate comes on the heels of emotional testimony from more than 150 girls and women in Michigan who accused Larry Nassar, a former University of Michigan and USA Gymnastics team physician, of sexual abuse.
Some advocates cited that case when testifying in Annapolis in favor of the bill.
Del. Carlo Sanchez (D-Prince George’s), the House bill sponsor, said he hopes to change his colleagues’ minds about the bill, especially in light of the publicity surrounding recent abuse cases and the 46-to-0 vote in the Senate.
But several lawmakers appear to have questions, including about the bill’s requirement that those accused of failing to report have “actual knowledge” of the abuse and a limit within the statute to those who are aware of abuse and fail to report while the victim is still a minor.
“What does ‘actual knowledge’ mean?” Del. Deborah C. Rey (R-St. Mary’s) asked during a hearing on the bill. “How do you define it? Is it in criminal law? Why cut it off during the time the child is a minor?”
Advocates said the “actual knowledge” language has been used in court cases. And Rosenberg said the decision to apply the charge only to those who fail to report child abuse that occurs during the time the victim is a minor was an attempt to offer a compromise and win passage of the bill.
Meanwhile, some advocates say the bill doesn’t go far enough.
Jennifer Alvaro, a longtime clinician in the field of child sexual abuse, said she supports criminal penalties but doesn’t support the bill because “actual knowledge” is “an impossibly high standard.”
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, other states that have a criminal penalty for failing to report apply it to mandatory reporters who “knowingly” fail or “willfully fail” to alert the proper authorities.
Rosenberg said the “actual knowledge” language was another compromise.
“We’ve never gotten a bill passed with a lower standard,” Rosenberg said. “For whatever reason, our state needs more.”