Adam Rosenberg is executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. Joyce Lombardi is director of government relations and legal services at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.
In this #MeToo and #TimesUp moment, just as we’ve been shocked by the abuse, we are also disturbed by the enablers, the seemingly good people who either knew or strongly suspected that something foul was afoot but chose not to act.
For each persistent abuser, there are enablers who chose not to act.
Consider the Penn State leaders who, only at their sentencing, stated that they “deeply regretted” not doing more to prevent Jerry Sandusky from molesting boys in the school’s athletic facilities.
It is utterly human for otherwise good people to look away and to give themselves a dozen reasons (such as disbelief and self-interest) for doing so. This is especially true — and damaging — in cases of child abuse. Unfortunately, predators do not stop until they have to. And that is precisely why every state requires adults, especially front-line workers such as teachers and nurses, to report suspected child abuse.
Even when they don’t want to.
But here’s the thing: Although mandatory reporting has been part of Maryland law since 1984, the state’s legislature has refused to protect children and enforce its own law. Every state and territory has enacted penalties that range from civil fines to criminal charges for those who knowingly fail to report child abuse — except Maryland and Wyoming. Some states even make it a felony. The goal of such laws is not to penalize hardworking providers, as some critics suggest, but rather to give adults extra incentive to fight the numerous reasons to look the other way.
Maryland has resisted adding penalties to its mandatory-reporter law for a decade, even after faced with a child’s death.
The cases keep piling up. It is not difficult to imagine that the prospect of penalties would have, for example:
• prompted the well-meaning day care director in St. Mary’s County who failed to report a 3-year-old’s visible bruises and disclosure of beatings to overcome her misguided belief that she could handle criminal matters better than law enforcement or child protective services.
• spurred the elementary school principal in Prince George’s County to report the strong evidence against popular teacher’s aide Deonte Carraway before he abused about two dozen children in his care.
• prevented the Montgomery County school officials from simply reprimanding charismatic veteran teacher John Vigna for his inappropriate contact with children, while letting him stay in the classroom for decades.
• emboldened the numerous teachers at Vigna’s and Carraway’s schools to defy their bosses’ assurances that they’d handle the problem, and do what Maryland law has long required: report to police or child protective services.
While Maryland, since 2016, has required investigative agencies to notify a licensing board or an employer if they discover that a mandated reporter ignored his duty to report, it is only a notice statute, not a penalty. It ultimately leaves it up to the individual board or employer to investigate, gather evidence and then decide whether to take action. There is no concrete penalty. Nor is there an independent investigation by a neutral third party, such as a local prosecutor’s office, which would arguably be more adept at fact-finding and less likely to be swayed by a beloved figure in their midst. Existing law, standing alone, is not enough to fully protect Maryland’s children.
That’s why a bill introduced last session by state Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery County) passed unanimously. Although the bill died in the House, Lee and Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) reintroduced the bill Thursday.
While it is noble for well-meaning adults to later apologize for not having done more, it simply is not good enough for the children they should have protected.
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