AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has his eye on Maine’s law that obligates professionals who are in regular contact with children to alert state child welfare officials when they suspect child abuse or neglect.
The state Department of Health and Human Services has submitted a bill titled “An Act to Strengthen Mandatory Reporting Laws” for consideration by lawmakers in the coming months.
Therese Cahill-Low, who directs the department’s Office of Child and Family Services, said Maine’s mandatory reporting law has a number of shortcomings that lead to child abuse and neglect cases going unreported. According to DHHS, the state received more than 17,000 reports of suspected abuse or neglect in 2010 and referred more than 8,000 of them for further investigation.
“We have recognized that we have some holes in our current mandated reporter law,” Cahill-Low said. “The purpose of the bill would be to address those and try to bring focus to an area that saves lives.”
The bill is not yet available in written form, and DHHS officials say they can’t release specifics about the proposal as they are still being completed.
Maine’s mandatory reporting law requires that 32 types of professionals — from school employees to medical personnel to law enforcement — report child abuse or neglect to the Department of Health and Human Services if they have reason to suspect it has happened.
The state’s Child Death and Serious Injury Review Panel — a group of law enforcement, medical personnel, educators, child welfare officials and others who review child deaths and serious injuries — has recommended measures in the past to shore up the state’s mandatory reporting laws, Cahill-Low said.
Maine’s mandatory reporting law became a subject of discussion last summer after the release of a Maine State Police report that suggested a number of people were aware the Rev. Bob Carlson sexually abused multiple children but didn’t come forward to report it. Carlson, who served as president of Penobscot Community Health Care and as a chaplain for a number of Bangor-area police and fire departments and Husson University, committed suicide in November 2011 just days after the state police began investigating him for alleged sexual abuse of children.
Maine’s mandatory reporting law falls short when it comes to enforcement and training, Cahill-Low said.
“There’s not a lot of teeth in the current statute,” she said. “If someone that we know didn’t report, and the child ended up dying or having a serious injury, there’s really nothing in the law that allows us to enforce the law.”
Maine’s mandatory reporter law first passed in 1965 as a measure to require doctors who saw signs that young patients have been abused to make a report to what was then the state Department of Health and Welfare.
The provision laid out a penalty of $100, up to six months in prison, or both for failing to report suspected abuse. It also guaranteed someone who made a report of abuse immunity from civil or criminal liability.
According to a review of legislative records, the state Legislature raised the financial penalty to $500 in 1975. But two years later, the Legislature scaled back the penalty, downgrading the failure to report suspected abuse or neglect to a civil offense punishable only by a $500 fine and no longer by up to six months in jail.
The penalty language disappeared from the law entirely when it was amended again in 1980.
In addition to the lack of an enforcement mechanism, a number of people who are considered mandated reporters under the law aren’t aware of their status, much less the responsibilities associated with it, Cahill-Low said.
“When you tell somebody by law that they’re supposed to be doing this, it’s nice to know that and what they’re supposed to be doing,” she said.
The law includes no training requirement, and the Department of Health and Human Services has only a small corps of trainers to visit schools and other organizations that request training. The training mandated reporters receive — if they receive it at all — varies widely, according to Cahill-Low.
A number of organizations that employ mandated reporters, including school systems and hospitals, provide their employees with training, though there’s no consistent training regimen. The Department of Health and Human Services also provides online training for mandated reporters.
“Some of that demystifies it and takes away some of the fear [of reporting] that’s out there,” Cahill-Low said. “We try to do that, and we have an online training. We’re just wondering if it’s enough at this point.”
Victor Veith, executive director of the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children in Winona, Minn., told the Bangor Daily News last summer that the lack of training for mandated reporters is what prevents many cases of suspected child abuse from being reported.
Veith, a nationally recognized expert who trains investigators, prosecutors, doctors and others to recognize and address signs of child abuse, said state laws generally are consistent in defining who is required to report suspected child abuse, but they largely fail to address training for them.
“If we really want the reporting laws to be successful, we’re going to have to address training,” Veith said in August. “Everything else is just a Band-Aid. [Training] is clearly the solution that the research makes clear will truly make a difference.”