JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (MDN) – In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky trial, Missouri legislators are continuing to debate what defines a criminal in sexual abuse cases.
Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, has sponsored a bill that would mandate that a witness of child sexual abuse come forward or face criminal charges. Schmitt said that the ultimate goal of this bill is not to criminalize people who are witnesses, but protect children in Missouri from sexual abuse.
“I think at the end of the day, what it comes down to for me is doing the right thing and expecting our neighbors to do the same to protect our kids,” Schmitt said.
Current law states that only certain professionals who deal with children have a legal obligation to report cases of child sexual abuse.
Schmitt’s bill provides that all people above the age of 18 would be required to report these cases to law enforcement. Those who fail to report a child sexual abuse case would face one year of jail time or a $1,000 fine.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said only reasonable people should be held liable.
“I could see in my own mind somebody saying, ‘well I didn’t think what I saw was sexual abuse’ and the court saying ‘oh no, you’re going to jail,” Schaaf said.
Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, questions the idea of turning a bystander into a criminal, especially in cases concerning parents having to report children.
“Though the child is in the system getting the assistance that they need, we need to consider everything that goes with it,” Justus said. “Is the child going to be removed from the care of the parent and put into the foster care system? Is the child going to have to go on the sex offender registry? All of those things put parents and guardians in a really difficult place.”
A Missouri task force was created last year that focused on the prevention of child sexual abuse. This group, titled the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children, conducted four public hearings last year and developed a report of their recommendations on how to prevent child sexual abuse.
The task force recommended that the state amend the mandatory reporting law, but did not make a witness liable to face criminal charges for failing to report.
Emily Van Schenkhof, task force member and deputy director of Missouri Kids First, testified against the new bill at Wednesday’s hearing.
“We did consider something similar to what is in Sen. Schmitt’s bill,” Van Schenkhof said. “However, since most instances of child sexual abuse are not witnessed, it would not have a significant impact on child welfare in the state and thus they didn’t make that recommendation.”
Van Schenkhof also said that the most common people who witness child sexual abuse are other juveniles who, under Schmitt’s bill, would not be required to report the case.
Though Schmitt said his bill is tailored to the specific situation of when an adult witnesses the sexual abuse of a child.
“If you’re looking at this specifically it’s probably pretty rare,” Schmitt said. “Yet to the extent it does occur I think it’s something we probably want people to report.”
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