State Politics

New law toughens child abuse reporting rules

TALLAHASSEE -- After the Jerry Sandusky saga exposed the flaws in Penn State's storied legacy, it revealed to victim advocates in Florida the need to fix the state's child sex abuse reporting laws.

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill that requires anyone to report known or suspected cases of child sex abuse. The "Protection of Vulnerable Persons" law also gives Florida the toughest mandatory reporting requirements in the nation for sex abuse violations on schools and university campuses, say victims advocates.

Under the measure, which takes effect on Oct. 1, anyone -- from university coaching staff to elementary school teachers to administrators to students -- who "willfully and knowingly" fails to report any suspicious sexual abuse they encounter will face fines of up to $1 million per incident and face potential criminal charges.

Current Florida law requires mandatory reporting of child sex abuse only when the suspect is a parent or other caregiver of a child.

"This law will break the culture we have learned so much about in the wake of the Penn State, Syracuse, and Citadel child abuse scandals, where institutions seemed to think the names of their

institutions were more important than protecting children," said Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book, who, with his daughter Lauren, proposed and pushed for the bill.

Lauren Book is a sexual abuse survivor and the founder of "Lauren's Kids," a victims advocacy group. For the past 11 years, she and her father have sought to tighten Florida's safety net for victims of sexual abuse and to strengthen the laws against child sexual predators.

The Books said they didn't realize the state's mandatory reporting laws were so weak until learning of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.

Sandusky was arrested last year on charges that he sexually abused at least eight boys over a period of 15 years. After his arrest, Penn State fired Sandusky's supervisor, the college's long-time coach Joe Paterno, who died earlier this year. The college's athletic director, Tim Curley, was also accused of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.

The new law requires anyone to report suspected sex abuse and provides $2 million to promote the sex abuse hotline at the Florida Department of Children and Families and adds 47 additional hotline counselors.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, said she initially expressed concerns that the bill was an overreaction to the Sandusky saga and worried that the initial plan to fine universities $5 million per incident went too far. But, after the bill's sponsors, Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, and Sen. Lisbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, agreed to narrow the scope and reduce the penalties, she supported the bill.

"Whenever you have a high profile case, the Legislature can have a kneejerk reaction and there can be unintended consequences," Rich said.

The new law also requires hotline operators to refer abuse reports to law enforcement and requires universities to turn over their abuse reports to prosecutors.

"We used to think we needed to simply create a hotline and get counseling services to people but we learned that people still don't want to tell," Book said.

"Ninety percent of the childhood sex abuse may be committed by someone you know but 95 percent is preventable through education and awareness," Book said. What's worse, he added, is according to national data "the average predator commits 123 separate offense to separate individuals before they are caught."

In addition to imposing fines on universities, the bill increases from a misdemeanor to a third-degree felony the penalties for those who knowingly fail to report child abuse. In addition, it raises the prison sentence from one year to up to 15 years and increases potential fines from a maximum of $1,000 to a maximum of $5,000.

Legislators also set aside $1.5 million, or up to $3,000 per victim, to help victims relocate.