As the man accused of perpetrating sexual crimes against children at Penn State University prepares to face a jury this week, legislation enacted by West Virginia lawmakers following that scandal are now in effect.
But what does the new law - which was implemented Friday - mean exactly for West Virginia residents?
For anyone 18 or over, the bill requires that if you receive a "credible disclosure" or "observe any sexual abuse of a child," you must report it to law enforcement or to Child Protective Services, a division of the W.Va. Department of Health and Human Resources, for further investigation. If you don't do so within 48 hours, you could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to up to 30 days in jail and up to $1,000 fine.
For example, if a child tells a neighbor he or she has been sexually abused, that neighbor is required by law to call the police or CPS within two days. The neighbor is also encouraged to report a suspicion of abuse.
"They certainly can still report for just a suspicion, but the law will now hold them accountable if they have observed it or have a disclosure from a credible witness," said Claudia Raymer, Ohio County Family Resource Network executive director and the sole Northern Panhandle member of the W.Va. Prevention Leadership Council.
In addition to the general-public component of the new law, it expands those who are "mandated reporters" in the community.
Handling a Disclosure
Advocates offer the following suggestions for what to do (and what not to say) when a child or adult discloses suspected child abuse or neglect.
What to do when a child or adult discloses suspected child abuse or neglect:
1. Find a private place to talk with the person.
2. Reassure the person making the disclosure ("I believe you.")
3. Listen openly and calmly, with minimal interruptions.
4. Write down the facts and words as the person has stated them. (Exact words are important to investigators.)
5. Do not promise not to tell, but respect the person's confidentiality by not telling others who don't need to know.
6. Tell the truth.
7. Be specific. Let the child know what is going to happen.
8. Assess the child's immediate safety.
9. Be supportive.
10. Report the disclosure immediately and no later than 48 hours to Cnild Protective Services and law enforcement.
What NOT to say when someone discloses suspected child abuse or neglect:
1. Don't ask "why" questions such as: "Why didn't you stop him or her?" "Why are you telling me this?"
2. Don't say: "Are you sure?"
3. Don't ask: "Are you telling the truth?"
4. Don't say: "Let me know if it happens again."
5. Avoid leading questions: ("Did your uncle touch you, too?" "Was he wearing a blue jacket?")
For more information, visit Prevent Child Abuse WV at www.prevent childabusewv.org and the WV Child Advocacy Network at wwww.wvcan. org.
Up until Friday, mandated reporters of child sexual abuse included:
- medical, dental or mental health professionals
- religious healers
- social services workers
- school teachers and personnel
- child care or foster care workers
- emergency medical services personnel
- law enforcement and circuit court judges
- family court judges or magistrates
- Christian Science practitioners
Now also included in that group are:
- youth camp administrators or counselors
- employees, coaches or volunteers of an entity that provides organized activities for children
- commercial film or photographic print processors
Finally, the bill clarifies that mandated reporters must report instances of suspected child abuse and neglect to CPS - not just report the incident to a supervisor. Supervisors "may supplement the (CPS) report or cause an additional report to be made," according to the bill, but this action does not nullify the person's obligation to report the suspected abuse or neglect.
Basically, Raymer said, a worker can report it to his or her supervisor, but she must ALSO report it to CPS or the police. The order in which the employee accomplishes that is up to him or her.
"Many places have procedures that say they should come to the supervisor and the supervisor will decide whether or not to report it," Raymer said. This law, in effect, trumps that protocol.
Raymer said to report abuse, call the county DHHR office and ask for the "CPS worker of the day," who will gather all of the pertinent details. If it is after business hours, W.Va. residents may call the CPS Child Abuse and Neglect hotline at 800-352-6513 to report.
For more information, visit Prevent Child Abuse WV at www.preventchildabusewv.org.
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A free mandated reporter training including the new regulations will be held at the YWCA Wheeling, 1100 Chapline St., Wheeling, from 12:30-2 p.m. Thursday, June 28. To register, call 304-232-2748 by June 15.