ANNAPOLIS (February 18, 2018)—Legislation that would make knowingly failing to report child abuse a crime in Maryland was passed by the Senate, but faces some skepticism in the House.
Under current law, if a mandatory reporter—defined as health care practitioners, police officers, educators, and human service workers—believes that a child has been abused or neglected, they must notify the local department of Child Protective Services or a law enforcement agency.
Failure to do so could result in a loss of license, due to a 2016 law in Maryland, but it is not a crime.
"This closes that loophole," said Adam Rosenberg, the executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, who testified in both chambers on behalf of the new proposal. "This is about being able to hold that very last group of people, who have been enabling abuse to go on, accountable."
The House bill (HB0500), sponsored by Delegates Carlo Sanchez and Erek Barron, Democrats representing Prince George's, proposes that a violator would be guilty of a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The Senate version (SB0132), sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, includes the same punishment.
The Senate bill has been approved by that chamber; the identical House bill has had a hearing but hasn't advanced out of committee, where a number of House Judiciary members have raised concerns about the new child-abuse proposal.
Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, sponsored the 2016 law, in which a complaint about a failure to report is brought to the worker's licensing board for review and possible termination. She told the Capital News Service that she'd like to see effects from that law, which began in October 2016, further develop before creating "new crimes."
"Creating a crime (could) mean that we're going to have a lot of reports that shouldn't have been reported," said Dumais. "I think we just need to tread carefully. We have some pretty strict laws on the books already."
Dumais—who sponsored a bill this session denying parental rights to rapists that Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law Tuesday—said she is concerned that mandatory reporters would plead the fifth in court if they face possible indictment.
Sanchez said he doesn't see over-reporting as an issue. He said reports can fall through the cracks in transition from the mandatory reporter to Child Protective Services—which is the current system—so the ability to take a claim straight to a prosecutor could take pressure off social services and make abuse easier to catch early.
Last year a similar bill passed in the Senate but died in the House. The latest proposal has less opposition. The Maryland State Education Association, for example, was against it last year but said in an email to Capital News Service that this bill "takes a step in the right direction by clarifying reporting requirements." Which, they added, "will help prevent misreporting that drains resources and distracts from real cases of abuse."
Variations of these efforts have been around for close to a decade, but they've gained more attention after the case of Deonte Carraway, a 24-year-old school worker in Prince George's County who was arrested in February 2016 .
Carraway was sentenced in August 2017 to 75 years in federal prison for 15 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor to produce child pornography, involving 12 children from 9 to 13 years old. He was sentenced to 100 years on 23 counts of sex abuse in Prince George's County a month later.
Despite complaints to the principal of Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School, Michelle Williams, from parents and administrators about Carraway's behavior, Williams could not be prosecuted, Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela Alsobrooks told state lawmakers.
Williams was placed on administrative leave shortly after Carraway's arrest, Alsobrooks said. An attorney for Williams said late last year that she denied wrongdoing in this case and was unaware of abuse.
This new bill would enable the state to prosecute a knowing failure by an adult to report abuse.
"We learned that the principal knew something wasn't right, as did other school officials, but did nothing about it," said Alsobrooks, who was one of the prosecutors in that case. "We were able to hold Mr. Caraway accountable for his crimes. But what we have not done is further close the loophole—to (be) able to assure parents that this will never happen again."