Delegate Kathleen Dumais

Democrat, Maryland House of Delegates District 15

Bill Seeks To Criminalize Failure To Report Child Abuse

Some Maryland state lawmakers hope to impose criminal sanctions on people who do not report report suspected child abuse or neglect.

Current state law requires reporting, but the state does does not have the power to prosecute when someone doesn’t follow the law. Prompted by events that unfolded at Penn State University involving Jerry Sandusky last year, lawmakers in Maryland are taking action to protect children, but members of the General Assembly are divided.

Dianne Raine, an Eastern Shore school teacher, remains haunted by the death of 8-year-old, Shamir Hudson, in 1998.

“You know in your heart when something bad is going to happen,” she said. “That was the worst moment in my entire life. When you’ve held the children in your hands, your arms, when you put Band-Aids on injuries, when you begged people to intervene.”

Raine and her elementary school colleagues filed two dozen reports of suspected child abuse, yet no one came to his rescue. Shamir’s adoptive mom took him out of the school and placed him in a private nonaccredited facility.

“I told police when I left there, ‘Charge Mrs. Hudson with murder and charge the headmaster with suspected child abuse.’ It wasn’t until I got back to my office and got out the book that I realized there was nothing I could do about that,” said Joel Todd, a prosecutor in Shamir’s case.

Under current Maryland state law, everyone is required to report suspected child abuse and neglect, but the state has no power to prosecute when someone doesn’t follow the law.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-District 34, whose district encompasses portions of Harford and Cecil counties, is shepherding a bill to make it a misdemeanor crime for a person to knowingly fail to report suspected child abuse or neglect — punishable by a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.

“We want to be able to save a child who has been a victim of abuse because, many times, it goes unreported,” Jacobs said.

Child advocates, like Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, support the legislation.

“By enforcing existing law that’s in place, we will begin to change so that people will be on notice and they will realize they have a duty — not just an ethical duty — to report, but also a legal obligation,” Rosenberg said.

Current state law states a person shall — not must — contact Social Services or the local police if child abuse or neglect is suspected. The current law also exempts clergy or attorneys from reporting if they become aware of child abuse or neglect through privileged communications.

The legislation does not strengthen the language, but many lawmakers said they consider this a bill of good intentions that will need more study.

“We should make it a civil offense where you could be forced to pay a fine and not actually face jail time. Let’s see if that works before we create another crime,” said Montgomery County Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-District 20.

“I think it is better to try and work on prevention issues than necessarily criminalize things,” said Montgomery County Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-District 15.

Competing legislation pending in the General Assembly does include criminal penalties.

Deborah Baldwin said she supports criminal penalties. Baldwin said her daughter’s cheerleading coach declined to do anything when the girl revealed she was assaulted by a referee.

“We are required by law to send our children to school, and we expect them to be safe,” she said. “There should be a law that requires teachers to protect children from these situations.”

The General Assembly has declined to pass similar legislation introduced four times in the past eight years.

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