HARTFORD, Conn. – The child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University has prompted state lawmakers across the nation to take another look at laws designed to protect children and punish child predators.
Thirty-eight legislatures are back in session this month, most for the first time since retired assistant Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged in November with child sex abuse and two school officials were charged with failing to properly report abuse allegations. At least 12 states are considering mandatory reporting legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and more are expected to craft bills as their sessions get into full swing.
In addition to measures to improve the reporting of suspected child sex abuse, bills have been drafted across the country that would increase or even eliminate the statutes of limitations for bringing criminal or civil cases against alleged abusers.
"The alleged incidents at Penn State I think awakened something in our national consciousness about protecting our kids," said Mike Feuer, a California assemblyman and chairman of that legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Feuer, a Los Angeles Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would have employees at universities added to the list of mandated reporters in his state, which already includes teachers, doctors and others.
"If we were to fail to pass a bill like the one I have introduced in California only to have subsequent abuse occur, we will look back on this moment as a wasted opportunity to protect a child who will never get that moment back," he said.
Forty-eight states currently require at least some professionals to immediately report knowledge or suspicion of child sexual abuse to some authority, according to the NCSL. Eighteen of those states require every adult to be a mandated reporter.
New Jersey is another state looking to expand its mandated reporter law, and is also considering legislation that would remove a two-year time limit for bringing civil lawsuits against alleged abusers.
Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes III, D-Middlesex, the chairman of his chamber's Judiciary Committee, said he and others have been trying to get the legislation passed for years. He said now seems to be the perfect time.
"I think Penn State will be the watershed moment," he said. "Many states are going to be prompted to strengthen not only their criminal laws, but their civil laws as well, which is what we're doing."
States, including Pennsylvania, are setting up task forces or holding informational public hearings in an attempt to draft comprehensive legislative packages that might address several concerns.
Connecticut lawmakers held a hearing this week as mourners gathered at Penn State for a series of public memorial events honoring former football coach Joe Paterno, who died Sunday of lung cancer. Penn State's board of trustees fired Paterno after he was criticized over his handling of the child sex abuse allegations against Sandusky.
As the Connecticut legislature considers how to move forward, it will consider mandated reporting, setting standards for youth camps and programs at the state's public college, said state Rep. Diana Urban, co-chairwoman of the Select Committee on Children.
She said the key is making sure the proper authorities have all the information they need.
"We don't want information to go awry and to have children exposed to situations that will impact them for the rest of their lives."
Sandusky, 67, is accused of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He and the two school officials maintain their innocence.
Advocates for abuse victims are pushing hard for legislation to be passed this year, recognizing that the Penn State scandal presents an opportunity to cut through the government's red tape.
"It is a mobilization time. But just as important, it is a public information time," said Jim Hmurovich, chief executive of Prevent Child Abuse America. "We need to get the message out that sex offender registries and treatment services for victims and mandatory reporting requirements are important, but they're not the whole picture. Let's think about way up the river so the child never gets hurt in the first place."
Jetta Bernier agrees. A national child-abuse expert who runs Massachusetts Citizens for Children, she said the lessons learned from the recent scandal involving the Catholic church is that it doesn't help to have stiff penalties, if the warning signs of abuse are ignored or go unnoticed. She supports legislation like a bill being considered in West Virginia that would spend $1.1 million in public funds to increase child-abuse education and prevention efforts.
""It's good to begin strengthening reporting requirements, but if people don't know what to look for, the reporting just isn't going to cut it," she said. "People need to know how to identify and how to prevent. That's a piece that I have found missing in a lot of these attempts to push legislation forward."