Substance Abuse in the Workplace
Creating an Ethical Organization Environment

Reporting Child Sex-Abuse in Light of the Penn State Situation

Providing a Safe Workplace Environment Extends to Penn State

I recently blogged about the child sex-abuse scandal that is currently shaking the core foundation of Penn State University, its administrators, and the Athletic Department, and has led to the firing of the school's legendary football coach Joe Paterno. I looked at the issue of Integrity in that blog. In this blog I examine workplace safety given that Penn State University is an academic workplace and subject to the same standards of moral behavior as any other organization.

We now know that former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse of young boys. Paterno, who holds the record for most wins by a college football coach and just announced his retirement after a record-setting 46th year at the helm of the football program, and the university's president, Graham Spanier, were fired this past week for allegedly covering up the scandal after Mike McQueary, an assistant coach in 2002, saw Sandusky raping a boy in a Penn State locker room and reported it to Paterno. Two other university officials were charged with perjury and failing to report child abuse.

In the wake of the Penn State event, two New York state lawmakers last Friday announced plans to introduce legislation that would make it a crime for college staff to fail to report child abuse. New York state law currently requires public-school teachers and officials, doctors, social workers, police officers and some other professionals to report child abuse. The proposed bill would add college staff, including professors, coaches and administrators, to that list, making failure to report a class A misdemeanor.

Given the attention to child abuse in the aftermath of the Penn State experience, we need to understand just what is child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse is a form of child abuse in which an adult or older adolescent uses a child for sexual stimulation. This certainly occurred at Penn State when former Penn State defensive coordinator, Sandusky, raped a 10-year old boy in the Penn State locker room.

The American Psychiatric Association states that "children cannot consent to sexual activity with adults," and condemns any such action by an adult: "An adult who engages in sexual activity with a child is performing a criminal and immoral act which never can be considered normal or socially acceptable behavior."

Approximately 48 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Individuals designated as mandatory reporters typically have frequent contact with children. Such individuals may include:

  • Social workers
  • Teachers and other school personnel
  • Physicians and other health-care workers
  • Mental health professionals
  • Child care providers
  • Medical examiners or coroners
  • Law enforcement officers

The circumstances under which a mandatory reporter must make a report vary from State to State. Typically, a report must be made when the reporter, in his or her official capacity, suspects or has reasons to believe that a child has been abused or neglected. Another standard frequently used is when the reporter has knowledge of, or observes a child being subjected to, conditions that would reasonably result in harm to the child.

Looking at the Penn State case, Assistant Coach Mike McQueary who had witnessed the inappropriate sexual activity told a grand jury under oath that he saw the rape take place. Not only did he not break up the sexual assault, he didn't call the authorities. Instead, McQueary called his father, and told head coach Joe Paterno. When faced with a situation of child rape, McQueary chose to leave the scene. If all the reported facts about the case are accurate, the 10-year-old boy needed McQueary's help, and the then-28-year-old aspiring coach chose himself, Sandusky, and the reputation of Penn State at the time, over saving the boy.

In Pennsylvania, legal authority rests in Subchapter G issued under the Child Protective Services Law, 23 Pa.C.S. §  6383(b)(2); and section 8 of the Medical Practice Act of 1985 (63 P. S. §  422.8). As a general rule under Section 16.102 of the Act, Suspected Child Abuse—mandated reporting requirements, Board regulated practitioners who are staff members of a medical or other public or private institution, school, facility or agency, and who, in the course of their employment, occupation or practice of their profession, come into contact with children must immediately notify the person in charge of the institution, school, facility or agency or the designated agent of the person in charge when they have reasonable cause to suspect on the basis of their professional or other training or experience, that a child coming before them in their professional or official capacity is a victim of child abuse. Upon notification by the Board regulated practitioner, the person in charge or the designated agent assumes the responsibility and has the legal obligation to report the crime.

Herein lies the problem from a regulatory perspective. Did the victim “come before” either Assistant Coach McQueary or Coach Paterno? Unfortunately, the answer may be no, although we also need to look at Pennsylvania's Child Protective Services Law. The law imposes a child-abuse reporting mandate on any individual who comes into contact with children in the course of his or her work or professional practice - medical professionals, child-care workers, teachers - and has "reasonable cause to suspect" that the minor has been abused. The law requires these "mandatory reporters" to notify a person in charge or a designated agent, not the police.

Arguably, applying the law to McQueary, he discharged his duty when he reported what he'd seen to Paterno, his supervisor, not law enforcement. Paterno referred the matter to university administrators who did nothing. The question is: Shouldn’t the law be changed to require a mandatory reporting of the incident to child protective services by the top administrator and let that agency decide what should be done?

The bottom line is a university is a workplace and, like all workplaces, must provide a safe environment for all employees and those who have occasion to be in that environment. After all, if a vice president in a corporation were to bring a 10-year-old child into his or her office and proceed to sexually abuse them wouldn’t we expect anyone in the know to report it and the CEO to take appropriate action against that employee? Common decency and moral behavior dictates that any person with knowledge of such a heinous activity must not stand quietly by while someone is sexually molested or otherwise attacked.

The effects of child sexual abuse can be devastating including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and long-term psychological trauma. How ironic it is that the child sex abuse occurred at Penn State, an educational institution that is charged with molding young minds, discussing right and wrong, and preparing young people to be contributing members of society.  

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 16, 2011