Washington County: It's mandatory to report child abuse

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 26, 2011 - 6:37 PM

Minnesota laws require those who work with kids to notify authorities themselves, even if supervisor has been told.

Could a Penn State-style child sex scandal happen in Washington County?

"It's not going to happen if people do their jobs and report," said Don Pelton, a county child protection supervisor who's been busy informing coaches, teachers, bus drivers, nurses, day care workers and others about how to comply with Minnesota law.

"If you don't report, you're putting other people at risk," Pelton said last week. "This guy at Penn State, he had more than one victim."

In Minnesota, anyone working with children must report maltreatment to police or a social service agency. Such people are designated as "mandated reporters" under state law. Reporting abuse to a school principal or any other supervisor does not excuse the person witnessing abuse from notifying investigative agencies.

That differs from Pennsylvania, where allegations of child sex abuse against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky led to an investigation of national importance.

In Pennsylvania, said law professor Wesley Oliver, employees witnessing child abuse are supposed to notify their superiors in their institutions or departments. That's where state law breaks down, said Oliver, of Widener University in Pennsylvania.

"Ultimately, the superior must report," he said. "There is a thorny question in Pennsylvania of who that superior is and who has a duty to report. For a major institution, this becomes a complicated question. Does that mean the chair of a department, or the dean of a division of the university, or even the president?"

Pennsylvania law also requires that anyone who learns about child abuse "in the course of his employment" must report it, he said. "Does that mean the employee of a university that educates adults? If so, does this statute mean, for instance, that a garbage man on his route who sees something suspicious must report it?"

The lesson from the Penn State scandal? "Somebody always finds out," said Rick Backman, the Washington County division manager who oversees child protection. "If you think there's a problem you should ask more [about it]. There are red flags all over the place."

While Washington County doesn't have a university, numerous cases of child sex abuse and beatings have hit the headlines in recent years. Even if Minnesota didn't have strong laws, Pelton said, adults have a moral responsibility to report suspected abuse.

"There has to be some push in the community that these kids are important to us and we should never tolerate mistreatment," he said.

Pelton has conducted dozens of informational sessions this year for adults who work with children to acquaint them with the law. Complaints made to the county are shared with police and vice versa. The identity of anyone reporting abuse is kept confidential, Pelton and Backman said.

Despite more sensational cases such as the Penn State sex scandal, history shows that neglect is the most common form of child abuse -- and results in the most deaths, Pelton said.

Examples would include "co-sleeping," where parents roll over in bed and suffocate small children. Others may involve driving drunk with kids in the vehicle, leaving small children unattended and failing to provide adequate food and shelter.

To learn more about Washington County's child pro- tection programs and what the law requires, go to www.star tribune.com/a824.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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