While there’s been much speculation about who did or didn’t report suspected child sexual abuse at the hands of a former Penn State University coach, the law in Tennessee is clear about that legal responsibility.
The bottom line is that everyone has the responsibility to report suspected child abuse.
That’s right, any person who knows about or suspects child abuse — physical or sexual — is responsible for reporting it. The law makes no distinction about a person’s professional relationship to the child.
And it’s a law that investigators and prosecutors in the First Judicial District take seriously.
District Attorney General Tony Clark said the responsibility applies to everyone from judges to neighbors.
“In Tennessee there is a duty to report child abuse or child sexual abuse. It puts the burden on anyone,” who suspects the abuse, Clark said.
“It’s a duty for everyone,” he said.
State law provides four specific ways to report suspected abuse. Those are to a judge having juvenile jurisdiction over the child, local DCS staff, the sheriff in the county where the child resides, or the chief law enforcement agency in the county where the child resides
If a person “willfully” does not report known or suspected abuse, and investigators find out, that person can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which carries up to 11 months, 29 days in jail.
“We’ve had a few of those, but most of the time it involves a parent, guardian or relative who knew it was going on but didn’t do anything about it,” Clark said. “We have charged people in the past and gotten convictions.”
Johnson City Police Investigator Debbie Dunn said another thing to remember is that the suspected abuse should be reported to law enforcement or Child Protective Services.
“It’s not for a school counselor to tell a teacher and the teacher to tell the principal and everyone along the way think that someone else is calling the police,” she said.
To protect the person reporting the suspected abuse from any retaliation, state law states that person will remain anonymous.
“The CPS can never disclose to the family where the referral came from,” Dunn said.
Too often, Dunn said she finds that people don’t want to get involved.
“During training people will ask, ‘What if I’m wrong,’ ’’ she said.
“Well, what if you’re right.”
Lemy Dao, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center, said training programs are a vital method to get the message out on how to recognize the signs of abuse and what to do if it’s suspected.
“Right now we’re doing a program called Stewards of Children,” which can be used by individuals, organizations or corporations that want to be better educated about child abuse prevention.
For more information about educational programs on child abuse prevention, call the CAC at 926-6528. To report child abuse anonymously, call the state hotline at 877-542-2873.