We Are All Mandatory Reporters

November 15, 2011

In the throes of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, Pennsylvania lawmakers say they’ll fix things the way that lawmakers always fix things: by tinkering with the law. Gov. Tom Corbett wants to expand the definition of “mandatory reporters” who are legally required to tell authorities when they suspect that a child has been molested. This after school employees and administrators (including coach Joe Paterno) failed at various times to alert police to reports about assistant coach Jerry Sandusky molesting young boys there.

Expanding the law is fine, but the need for a law to make people speak up about kids getting molested shines a harsh light on a problem that drags venerated organizations – from schools to youth groups to churches – into sex abuse scandals.

Having spent much of the past 25 years reading and writing about sex abuse in youth-serving organizations, I watched the Penn State debacle unfold last week as if watching yet another remake of a classic horror movie: different details, same plot.

The issue of sex abuse in youth institutions is not new – yet when confronted with abuse allegations, some of our biggest institutions keep making the same mistakes.

To be sure, over the past two decades U.S. youth-serving organizations have vastly improved how they prevent abuse and handle allegations; many have stellar child protection programs. When we do get a public scandal – like Penn State or the ongoing cases involving the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts – everyone in youth work should ponder the lessons.

At the heart of those lessons is leadership. Adults need to show it when they work with youth and nurture it in young people themselves. That means avoiding the pitfalls of organizations that have mishandled abuse allegations:

They minimize the accusation. Leaders look for or easily accept explanations that what happened wasn’t abuse. It was a misunderstanding about an innocent act, a bad judgment on the part of the worker. This doesn’t mean you immediately convict your staffer; there are misunderstandings and false charges. Just be aware that court files on abusers are filled with tales about backrubs to calm upset children.

They believe in the purity of the organization. Groups that help kids sometimes engender an almost religious devotion among staff and volunteers, even if the organization is secular. That devotion drives people to go above and beyond the call of duty – but it also compels them to dismiss bad news as an aberration that’s best forgotten. Large institutions and national networks are prone to shrug off an incident – “It’s just one case out of millions of kids” – while failing to see patterns that reveal how the organization is vulnerable to this crime.

They follow the law to the minimum. In the Penn State case, several key leaders defended their actions by saying they did what the law required in terms of reporting suspected abuse. Kenneth V. Lanning, a former FBI agent who specialized in analyzing child abuse, lamented to me last week that organizations routinely do the minimum required by law, when “they should do the maximum allowed by law.” Paterno and others should have reported the incident to police themselves, even though they were not required to.

They circle the wagons. When you do good work for kids, it’s easy to see criticism from the outside as overblown and a threat to the institution. When covering abuse cases in Scouting and the Church, I’ve frequently been asked by befuddled staffers, “Why would you attack us?” They assume that accusers, reporters and angry parents have a vendetta against their organization. By blaming others and deflecting questions, they look complicit and fail to grasp the internal problem.        

As I was reading about Penn State this weekend, I was researching an upbeat story about how program providers in Asheville, N.C., are using Ready by 21 strategies to create what all youth workers want: environments where young people feel emotionally and physically healthy and safe. The changes include improving staff training, expanding youth voice in programming decisions and community issues, and boosting collaboration to insure that all youth needs are covered. It’s easy to see how key elements of safety were missing at Penn State – not only the absence of harm, but comfort among both youth and staff in speaking up about it.

No matter what the law says about who is required to report abuse, we need to follow our own law. We are all mandatory reporters.

Read another youth advocacy perspective of the Sandusky case.


Patrick Boyle is communications director for the Forum for Youth Investment. He is the author of Scouts Honor: Sexual Abuse in America’s Most Trusted Institution, and numerous articles about sex abuse in youth-serving organizations.

Patrick Boyle