By Dara Kam
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 5:28 p.m. Friday, April 27, 2012
Posted: 5:06 p.m. Friday, April 27, 2012
TALLAHASSEE — Penn State officials who resigned in disgrace would have had to pay at least $8 million for covering up a sex scandal if Pennsylvania had enacted a law like the one that Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed Friday.
The new Florida law, which takes effect Oct. 1, imposes a $1 million-per-incident fine on college and university administrators who knowingly withhold information about child sex abuse on campus or at institution-sponsored events.
The law is one of dozens considered or enacted across the U.S. after child molestation scandals at Penn State University, Syracuse University and The Citadel. The Penn State scandal came to light in November and resulted in the ouster of the football team’s iconic coach, Joe Paterno.
Last year, former Penn State defensive coordinator Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky was arrested on charges that he sexually abused at least eight boys over a 15-year period. After Sandusky’s arrest, the university fired long-time coach Paterno and president Graham Spanier. Athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president stepped down from their positions and are accused of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.
Like Florida’s law, proposals in other states add coaches, athletic directors or university officials to the list of “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse or neglect. Virginia, Washington and West Virginia passed such laws in the past month.
But the “Protection of Vulnerable Persons” measure (HB 1355) signed into law by Scott makes Florida the first state to impose the hefty fine for each incident of child abuse that higher education institutions — both public and private — fail to report. And it puts college and university law enforcement agencies on the hook if they fail to turn over suspected abuse reports to prosecutors.
Scott signed the bill and three other sexual abuse-related measures after being blasted by victim advocates for vetoing $1.5 million for rape crisis centers around the state earlier this month. Critics called Scott’s veto especially egregious, coming in April, Sexual Violence Awareness Month.
Scott defended the action, saying money elsewhere in the budget covered rape crisis centers and domestic abuse victims. He reiterated his support for those programs on Friday in a press release announcing the bill signings. The release noted that the state’s $70 billion budget includes $6.5 million for rape prevention and sexual assault services and $29 million for domestic violence programs.
“This critical legislation I have signed into law shows the valuable steps Florida has made in protecting the rights of victims,” Scott said in a statement. “April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and this week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and it is an important time to raise attention to promoting victims’ rights and remember those lives affected by violence.”
The child molestation scandal-inspired measure also includes what child sex abuse victim advocates say is a critical change in when and how child sex abuse must be reported.
Current Florida law limits mandatory reporting of child sex abuse to when the suspect is a caregiver of a child. The new law would require anyone — including children — to report any suspected sex abuse, regardless of who the alleged perpetrator is, to the Department of Children and Families hotline.
And it increases penalties for knowingly failing to report child abuse from a misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, elevating potential prison sentences from a minimum of one year to up to 15 years and fines from a maximum of $1,000 to a maximum of $5,000.
The new law also requires hotline operators to refer abuse reports that don’t directly accuse a caregiver to the appropriate authority, instead of advising callers to contact law enforcement officials. DCF investigators would continue to be responsible for handling reports that involve a parent, guardian or other caregiver.
The change is expected to generate up to another 50,000 calls annually to the state hotline, which handled about 470,000 calls last year. Lawmakers included more than $2 million to hire 47 new workers to handle the calls and to cover other costs including educating the public about making the calls.
Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins said the agency has been working on a revamped hotline that will allow people to report abuse online. That system is expected to be up-and-running this fall, Wilkins said.