Many lawmakers want to get tougher on people who are required by law to report possible child abuse and neglect. Last week the Senate passed a bill that would impose criminal penalties for failing to report.
Although the sentiment is understandable, it may be more important to increase training so that workers responsible for children and families in the child welfare system and their mandated helpers can do their jobs effectively.
Maryland is one of about 18 states that requires everyone to report suspected child abuse, according to a legislative audit. But professionals such as police officers, certain health and human service workers, teachers and medical examiners have a higher responsibility to inform appropriate authorities, although there is no legal penalty for failing to do so. An obvious or egregious case of failure to report might result in disciplinary action or the loss of a professional license, but outside the realm of child welfare workers dealing with cases, those sanctions are extremely rare. The proposed legislation would add parole and probation agents to the list of mandated reporters, and it would make failing to report a misdemeanor subject to a maximum $1,000 fine. Passing such a law would certainly put Maryland in line with the majority of states that impose penalties, mostly misdemeanors, on those who are required to report. It may make sense to subject mandated reporters in Maryland to more serious penalties, but a fine may be sufficient.
Of course, the legislative effort to impose harsher penalties is being revived after the tragic death of 2-year-old Bryanna Harris, whose mother has been charged with killing her. But it's unclear that harsher penalties on mandated reporting would have saved a toddler such as Bryanna, since her contacts outside the child welfare system were sporadic.
Several child welfare professionals involved with Bryanna and her family have already been disciplined or fired. They might have benefited from lighter caseloads, more focused training and better supervision. Other cases involving signs of abuse missed by teachers or other professionals might have been helped by increased training or similar measures.
A death or lapse within the child welfare system presents many opportunities to improve policies. There should be consequences when mandated reporters shirk their duty.
But before imposing criminal penalties, it would be better to impress upon them the important responsibility they have and the lives they can improve or save. The troubled children they encounter must be able to rely on their consistent diligence.