The state is increasing penalties for those who suspect abuse but do not report it. The new law also will put special pressure on universities and colleges, slapping them with a $1 million fine if they fail to summon investigators when child abuse is suspected.
As of Oct. 1, Florida will have the most stringent mandatory reporting law in the nation to better ensure residents assume responsibility for protecting children, said State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, a sponsor of the legislation.
“When it comes to children’s safety, it’s everybody’s business,” Detert said. “It’s not enough to feel bad later.”
Penn State University received unprecedented penalties from the NCAA this week after investigations revealed top officials, including legendary football coach Joe Paterno, failed to alert authorities when coach Jerry Sandusky was caught abusing boys. Paterno and the school president were fired; Sandusky was convicted of multiple counts of child abuse this month and awaits sentencing.
Some have questioned whether Florida’s new law is too sweeping and whether it could flood caseworkers with unfounded complaints.
Failure to report suspected abuse or neglect of a child by a caregiver is now a misdemeanor. Although prosecutions are rare, the offense is punishable by up to a year in a county jail.
The new law raises the penalty to a felony for any Floridian convicted of failing to report any suspected crime against a child, not just abuse or neglect by a caregiver. Conviction could bring a 15-year prison term and fines up to $5,000.
The penalty against universities and colleges was inserted into the measure by other lawmakers, Detert said, but she does not disagree with it.
“Everybody was outraged over Sandusky,” Detert said.
The Venice Republican said that her main intent was to broaden the definition of abuse to include not just a physical injury verified by a physician, but also a “mental injury” verified by a psychologist.
“You no longer have to break somebody’s bones” to be considered abusive, Detert said.
The legislation got a big push from lobbyist Ron Book and his daughter Lauren, a childhood sexual abuse survivor and founder of the advocacy organization Lauren’s Kids.
Some lawmakers say the law overreaches, and they worry that it may cause the Florida Department of Children and Families to be inundated with minor complaints, such as a parent disciplining a child in public.
“Some people think it’s abusive to raise your voice to a child,” Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told the Palm Beach Post. “It seems it’s almost turning every Floridian into an informant for the government.”
Even so, DCF officials favor the new law they are expected to enforce.
“As an agency, we would rather err on the side of caution and have people overreport rather than underreport,” said Terry Durdaller, a regional communications director for DCF. “Any law that encourages the community to be more vigilant, more willing to advocate on behalf of vulnerable children, is a positive step.”
The agency’s 141 hotline workers have been averaging about 1,400 reports of suspected child abuse per day on weekdays and 550 per day on weekends.
DCF is adding 47 positions to handle what it predicts may be an another 40,000 complaints each year because of the new law.
Detert said legislative intent is not to overwhelm the agency with frivolous calls.
“I hope that would not happen,” Detert said. “What we’re trying to put in place is some common sense.”
Current law already requires all Floridians to report suspected abuse or neglect of a child by a caregiver.
Most people can now call the Florida Abuse Hotline (800-962-2873) anonymously.
Educators, law enforcement officials, social workers, judges, day care workers and health care professionals are required to identify themselves.
The new law still allows most Floridians to call the hotline anonymously.