SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Two California state lawmakers said Wednesday they plan to introduce bills designed to prevent the type of sexual molestation scandal that has rocked Penn State University.
State Sen. Juan Vargas wants to hold coaches at all public and private colleges accountable for reporting instances of sexual abuse, while legislation planned by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara would strip nonprofits of their tax-exempt status if they are caught concealing, fostering or failing to report the sexual abuse of children.
The Democrats are among many state lawmakers across the country seeking to close various legal loopholes that have come to light in the wake of the sex abuse scandal in which a former Penn State football coach is charged with molesting eight young boys over a 15-year period. Some of the acts were witnessed, but top officials did not notify police.
State authorities say that colleagues and superiors of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky failed to report allegations of abuse to law enforcement, allowing him to perpetrate additional sexual assaults.
According to court documents and public reports, an assistant coach who saw a 10-year-old boy being sexually assaulted in 2002 notified Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who in turn told the university's athletic director and a vice president. Both administrators have been charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to properly report suspected abuse to authorities. They deny wrongdoing.
Many of the bills being considered in other states would expand the list of mandated reporters or require them to ensure that information is reported to police rather than simply passed on to superiors at work.
In California, Vargas is seeking to close what he calls a loophole in current state law by adding coaches at all public and private colleges to a list of people mandated to report child abuse or neglect. The state requires teachers, public school employees, youth program organizers, child care workers, social workers, doctors, law enforcement officials and others to report abuse to local law enforcement if they have reasonable suspicion of a crime.
"I want to make sure this doesn't happen in California," Vargas, of San Diego, said in an interview. "Unfortunately in California, it's also the case that coaches are not mandated reporters. You look at it, you see teachers, instructional aides, classified employees, supervisors, just a whole array of people — everyone except, it seems, for coaches and athletic directors."
Vargas' bill also would increase the penalty for mandated reporters who fail to report abuse from six months to a year in jail, and raise the fine from $1,000 to $5,000. Vargas, who is expected to run for a congressional seat next year, also wants to increase the penalty from six months to a year and increase fines from $1,000 to $10,000 for supervisors or administrators who try to prohibit someone from reporting such crimes.
Anyone who deliberately fails to report abuse in cases where the child dies or suffers great physical harm would face a minimum of one year in prison and a fine of $25,000. Currently, the state can levy a punishment of up to one year in jail and fine that person up to $5,000.
Lara, of Bell Gardens, said he would introduce legislation to strip nonprofit organizations of their tax-exempt status if they are caught concealing or failing to report abuse of children. That includes universities, faith-based, or afterschool programs.
Lara said he had been contemplating such legislation since reading allegations about some Boy Scout leaders failing to report sexual abuse of boys in Los Angeles. After learning of the allegations at Penn State, he said he felt compelled to act.
"It just infuriated me that people would actually work to foster and conceal the horrendous abuse that these children were going through," he said.
Lara said that as a boy, he was sexually abused by an older relative but felt so lonely and defeated that he never told anyone about it until he was in college. He said it took many years for him to recover.
"Your childhood and your innocence is completely robbed," he said. "From my own personal experience, you are changed for the rest of your life."
Lara said he is working with the state attorney general's office on the legal requirements of the legislation, which he said would be modeled on California law that strips social or athletic organizations of their nonprofit status if they are found to be violating the state's anti-discrimination laws.
Lawmakers in other states also are seeking to boost state reporting laws in the wake of the Penn State scandal. Among other recent proposals:
— Minnesota state Rep. Ryan Winkler announced earlier this month that he will introduce a bill expanding child abuse reporting requirements to anyone who knows or has reason to believe that a child is being abused or neglected. That includes volunteers and coaches at sports clubs who are currently voluntary reporters. School coaches already are mandatory reporters in Minnesota. Winkler also would like to require any "agency, governmental unit or private institution" to report its investigations to law enforcement.
— In New York, a bill by assemblymen James Tedisco and George Amedore would add college coaches, athletic directors, professors and college administrators to the list of child sex abuse mandated reporters. Failure to report an incident could result in a misdemeanor charge and a year in jail if convicted.
— Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order last week requiring that any employee of a college or university report allegations of child abuse and neglect within 24 hours, similar to a state law that already requires the same from public school teachers.
— Maryland state Sen. Nancy Jacobs said Wednesday that while Maryland has a mandated-reporter law, she is working on legislation that would create a criminal penalty if there is a conspiracy or a cover-up to prevent reporting. She also said she is working on protections for whistleblowers.
"We have a reporting law on the books and it's actually a pretty good one," Jacobs said. "It pretty much encompasses everybody, but we don't have any type of penalty for non-reporting."
— Washington state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles plans to introduce legislation next week that would add higher education employees to that state's list of people required to report suspected child abuse and neglect for children under 18.
A previous review by The Associated Press of abuse-reporting laws in all 50 states found that about a half-dozen states call for staff members of schools, hospitals and other institutions to notify the person in charge in the event of suspected child abuse. That superior is then legally obliged to report to the authorities.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
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