Amid the Penn State scandal, a Minnesota state attorney clarifies the law: All are mandated to act if they see abuse.
Former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley departs from his arraignment at a Harrisburg District Justice�s office Monday, Nov. 7 2011, in Harrisburg, Pa. Curley has been charged with perjury and failure to report under Pennsylvania�s child protective services law in connection with the investigation into allegations former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused boys, the state attorney general�s office said Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011.
In a legal opinion that might surprise prosecutors and youth sports officials, a top state attorney said Wednesday that all youth coaches are legally required to report incidents of child abuse and neglect.
Clarifying Minnesota law in the wake of the Penn State child abuse scandal, attorney Ann Ahlstrom said coaches are "mandated reporters" regardless of whether they are paid or whether they are affiliated with schools or youth sports organizations or clubs.
"What matters is the position you're in regarding the child," said Ahlstrom, an attorney with the state court's Children's Justice Initiative. "Regardless of who your sponsoring organization is."
At Penn State, head football coach Joe Paterno came under fire for merely informing a superior when he learned that a former assistant coach might have sexually assaulted a boy on campus.
Amid conflicting views on the law, the Star Tribune sought clarification from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which in turn sought input from Ahlstrom. Turns out, her opinion differed from those offered this week by the Dakota County attorney's office, Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota and, initially, from the department itself.
All three agreed that coaches affiliated with schools are mandated reporters -- so varsity coaches would be required to report abuse allegations, even if they don't teach at their respective high schools.
But they viewed thousands of volunteers and paid coaches in Minnesota sports clubs and recreational organizations as voluntary, not mandated, reporters.
Stacey Benson, who coaches volleyball for Armstrong Robbinsdale High School and a Minnesota One club team, said the distinction shouldn't matter.
"I can guarantee that if there was any hint of abuse, sexual or physical, or if I felt one of my athletes was at risk, it would be immediately reported," she said. "Those that 'pass the buck,' thinking someone else will react and report, are just as guilty as those that cover up abuse or don't contact authorities."
The dispute surprised Dan Klinkhammer, executive director of Minnesota Youth Athletic Services. He said he assumed that all coaches were legally required to report knowledge of child abuse. However, he said, his organization does not train or inform coaches about this responsibility.
Klinkhammer said he wouldn't be surprised if the Penn State controversy results in more safety requirements for youth sports organizations.
It's a delicate balance, Klinkhammer said, because too many requirements might scare off good volunteer coaches. But he said he is already considering posting advice on the organization's website regarding coaches and reporting abuse.
Law can seem vague
The Dakota County attorney's office has a practical reason for believing that club coaches aren't mandated reporters, Assistant County Attorney Don Bruce said. State statutes are so murky on the subject that his office would struggle to prosecute a club coach for failing to report. The word "coach" isn't even found in the state statute on mandated reporters or in a 16-page policy guide on abuse reporting.
Ahlstrom agreed that the vagueness of the statute is a problem and that prosecutors would be unlikely to win cases against club coaches. However, she found two reasons why the statute could apply to coaches outside of the formal education system: Coaches by their nature are educators -- holding leadership roles over children -- and coaches can be legally considered as providing child care during practices and sporting events. Child care providers are clearly considered mandated reporters under the law.
The distinction between a mandated and voluntary reporter is significant. Both receive protection against retribution for notifying authorities of abuse. But mandated reporters face misdemeanor charges if they withhold information about adults abusing children in their care.
Research suggests that even mandated reporters hesitate to make reports, especially when friends or colleagues are accused of abusing children, according to the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University. In a statement Tuesday, the center pointed to one study showing that less than 50 percent of mandated reporters followed through with the legal reporting obligations.
For those who are covered, state law is very specific: "If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you cannot shift the responsibility of reporting to a supervisor, or to someone else in the office, school, clinic or licensed facility. You alone are required to make the report to the responsible agency."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744