Friday, February 22, 2008

Senate OKs bill making failure to report abuse a crime

Senate OKs bill making failure to report abuse a crime
By Laura Smitherman
BaltimoreSun - February 22, 2008

The Maryland Senate approved Friday a bill making it a crime for health care workers, police officers, educators and others to fail to report suspected child abuse to authorities, a measure that some fear would make those professionals scapegoats.

The chamber voted 35 to 10 to approve the proposal, which would make failure to report abuse a misdemeanor subject to a fine of up to $1,000. Similar legislation has failed in previous years, but proponents said recent high-profile cases such as the death last year of 2-year-old Bryanna Harris in Baltimore might spur more lawmakers to support the bill this year.

"Why not err on the side of children because injury and death are the results if we fail to report," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill.

But several lawmakers said they have heard from teachers and doctors who are concerned that the bill could unfairly put them in legal jeopardy or cause them to report every child injury as possible abuse, inundating strapped caseworkers at local departments of social services.

"Teachers are required to do so much nowadays in terms of their responsibilities, "Teachers are required to do so much nowadays in terms of their responsibilities,<wbr>" said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who opposed the bill. "I do understand the intent of the legislation because we do have so many proble

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia impose penalties on people who are required to report suspected abuse or neglect but knowingly or willfully fail to do so, according to a legislative analysis. Thirty-eight of those states make it a misdemeanor, and some, including Delaware and the District of Columbia, allow for jail time upon conviction.

Under current Maryland law, some professionals such as nurses, doctors and social workers must report abuse or face possible sanctions from licensing boards. The bill not only expands the list of those who are required to report to include parole and probation officers but also adds the criminal penalty.

Attorneys and clergy are generally exempt from reporting requirements if they become aware of abuse through privileged, or confidential, communications that they can't be legally compelled to divulge.

MedChi, a professional society for doctors, and the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics urged lawmakers to reject the proposal. They argued that physicians already face the loss of their licenses for failing to report suspected abuse. Further penalties would be "super fluous and unnecessary, MedChi, a professional society for doctors, and

"They are not criminals when they miss something," said Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

The state's public defender's office also weighed in against the bill, saying it would increase the number of false reports and expose children and their families to "needless embarrassment and potential separation," according to written testimony.

A similar bill passed the Senate in 2003 but died in the House of Delegates. It was introduced the next two years but floundered in committee.

This year, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the bill is likely to get a favorable reception in his chamber, depending on how the legislation is written. Busch said there should be a process whereby professionals are made aware of their obligations and the consequences for not fulfilling them.

"It's important for people to be held responsible and accountable, "It's important for people to be held

The state's system for protecting vulnerable children has come under scrutiny since Bryanna Harris' death in June from methadone poisoning. Child protective workers allowed her to stay with her drug-addicted mother, who has been charged with murder.

A recent report from the Baltimore City Health Department found that a nurse who worked closely with the Harris family did not observe physical abuse nor did the nurse identify any imminent life-threatening risk.

Lawmakers also invoked the case of Shamir Hudson, 8, who was beaten to death by his adoptive mother in their mobile home outside Berlin in 1998. Social workers in that case had repeated reports of abuse but never removed him the home.

During debate over whether new legislation is needed, Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, noted that the chamber voted Thursday to approve bill to increase penalties for people who attend illegal dogfights and cock fights to as much as one year in prison and a $2,500 fine.

"We're talking about abuse of children versus abuse of animals," he said.

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