Lessons from Penn State: Training Mandated Reporters

From a special edition of Centerpiece, the official newsletter of the National Child Protection Training Center:

The recent child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, in which multiple, well-educated professionals declined to report clear evidence of maltreatment, is not an
isolated instance. Twenty years of research documents what every child protection professional in America already knows—that most people most of the time won’t report even
clear evidence of maltreatment or otherwise intervene to save a child.

Although less clear, the Penn State scandal also draws attention to an equally disturbing problem—that even when reports of abuse are made, these reports are often handled
ineffectually if not incompetently. According to media reports of the Penn State scandal, investigators and prosecutors did review a 1998 report of inappropriate intimate contact with a boy.

The alleged perpetrator, Jerry Sandusky, even admitted to two university detectives that he hugged the boy while both were naked and stated, “I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get if from you. I wish I were dead.”

Although this recorded admission of Sandusky’s is an incriminating if not out-right confession of indecent contact with a boy, no charges or additional actions were taken.

The inability, even failure of criminal justice authorities to take meaningful action to protect a child is also not an isolated anecdote. Indeed, a large body of research and the universal experience of the nation’s child protection professionals confirm inadequate training at the undergraduate and graduate level—a woeful lack of preparation that increases the chances children will fail to be protected or that false accusations will be made.

In the past eight years, the United States Department of Justice has begun to address both of these issues through the rapid development and dissemination of model undergraduate and graduate curricula that will better prepare mandated reporters to fulfill their responsibilities to children and that will also better prepare criminal justice, social work, mental and medical health professionals to respond appropriately to instances of maltreatment.

These related reforms will reduce, if not rid the country of “on the job training” as the primary means of educating both mandated reporters and the child protection professionals who investigate or otherwise respond to reports.

This paper details these reforms and calls for an expansion of these initiatives.

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