Adults reluctant to report child abuse

HARRISBURG – A new study suggests adults feel reluctant to report suspected child abuse to the state, and many don’t understand how the process works.

The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance commissioned the study through the Center for Opinion and Research at Franklin & Marshall College. PFSA said the phone survey of 1,004 residents reveals how little the average resident understands about what constitutes abuse and how to report it.

The study surveyed both mandated and permissive reporters – the latter referring to residents not bound by their profession or role in the community to report suspected abuse or neglect to the state or face criminal charges for failing to do so.

The findings showed 68 percent of those surveyed expressed “at least some concerns” about reporting suspected abuse and neglect to ChildLine. The reluctance stemmed from fears about making the situation worse for the child, not knowing all of the facts and fear of physical or legal retaliation.

The study showed that “having attended child abuse training” had the single greatest effect on whether an adult would report suspected abuse to the state.

“This study clarified common assumptions about people’s willingness or desire to get involved,” said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research. “If they believe a child isn’t safe, they want to ‘do the right thing,’ but are not always sure how to do it.”

“This research shows that people are more likely to get involved when they’ve received training that has prepared them to do so.”

Only 17 percent of respondents identified as “permissive reporters” said child abuse and neglect are serious problems statewide, and only 26 percent wanted to learn more about recognizing and reporting abuse.

Rates for the same responses among mandated reporters were 23 percent and 41 percent respectively.

“The findings are extremely revealing,” said PFSA’s Executive Director Angela Liddle. “Child abuse is disturbing, so it’s understandable that people don’t want to think about the tragic realities. This research helps us quantify how little adults know about identifying abuse, understand what motivates them to get involved and identify how maltreatment is currently recognized and reported. Although the study focuses on Pennsylvania, the results have national implications.”

Recent strides over the last few months to implement tougher child protection laws have seen more than 15 bills land on Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk. The latest piece of legislation working its way through the General Assembly – House Bill 112 – would criminalize any sexual contact between athletic personnel and the children they interact with, creating an offense called “sexual assault by a sports official.”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, first drafted the legislation after a private volleyball coach and personal trainer in his district, William Gordon, was arrested for having an “unlawful sexual relationship” with a 15-year-old girl he coached and mentored.

Vereb, a former police officer, said he knows firsthand about the concerns residents feel when it comes to reporting abuse.

“I haven’t seen the study,” he said. “[But] as a former police officer, in many cases victims and families are reluctant to come forward. They are reluctant about court proceedings and retaliation is always a factor when reporting a crime, especially when dealing with the filth [that commit child abuse].”