In recent weeks,the alleged scandal of football coach has cast a dark shadow over previously respected and valued institutions, including a highly regarded university and a nonprofit agency providing services to youth. Both Penn State University and the nonprofit organization, the Second Mile, are dealing with media scrutiny and a barrage of accusations, as well as the occasional supporters, most of whom are struggling to make sense of the contradictions between public actions of a highly regarded coach and philanthropist and the accusations of former youth involved in the programs established to improve and enrich their lives.
Caught in the uproar are colleagues who were aware of the alleged abuse but failed to contact child protective services. This has launched debates about the legal responsibility versus moral responsibility when reporting child abuse. On the one hand, some persons have argued that the alleged abuse was reported to superiors at the university, in compliance with legal obligations. However, many advocates argue that there is also a moral obligation to report abuse to child protective services. This case has fueled debates across the country regarding state mandatory reporting laws and culpability of educational and other institutions in reporting child abuse. Approximately eighteen states have passed legislation requiring that any adult with reasonable cause to suspect child abuse has an obligation to report the abuse to child protective services.¹
In light of these debates, I find myself recalling something I was taught in a first aid class years ago. Participants were advised that they had an obligation to come to the aid of injured persons. Furthermore, myself and my classmates were told that there was the potential of personal liability should they ignore a person in need of first aid. We were advised that the legal system afforded us protections from potential lawsuits initiated due to further injury that might occur in the course of administering first aid. This is referred to as Good Samaritan Laws. At least two states have incorporated additional language that requires persons coming upon the scene of an emergency or accident to provide reasonable assistance to a person in need.
When it comes to child abuse, what is reasonable assistance? Some would say that reporting suspicions to an employer is reasonable. Others would say that the moral high road would be to file a report with child protective services. But really, is that enough? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for vigilantism. And I’m not suggesting action that might interfere with a police or child abuse investigation. What I would ask though, is this: would it be expecting too much that a person might try to ask a child if they are uncomfortable with the attention of an adult? Or to take precautions such as ‘hanging around’ when a person suspected of child abuse is alone with a child, thereby limiting unsupervised access to vulnerable children? I can think of a dozen other potential responses to suspected child abuse. Why do we, as a society, have this apparent need to compartmentalize, to leave it to one entity or organization to protect children? Don’t we all have an obligation to protect children?