By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Americans were shocked and appalled when they found out Penn State officials received reports of child abuse during the Jerry Sandusky scandal without reporting it.
Sandusky, a longtime assistant football coach at the university, was sentenced on Oct. 9 to 30 to 60 years on 45 counts of child sex abuse.
In Mississippi, anyone who receives reports of child abuse, especially those in positions of trust, are legally obligated to report any child abuse to the Department of Human Services.
“We’ve had a couple of circumstances in the region where a situation was reported to the next level of authority at their work, but it wasn’t reported to our agency because that person then elected not to report it, and when we found out about that we tried to do community education,” said Tracy Malone, regional director for the Department of Human Services.
“We’ve worked with schools and churches so they understand their liability and responsibility does not end with them reporting to their supervisor or school counselor or minister because the law says that they are required to report it to us.”
Reportable abuse includes physical abuse like intentionally injuring or bruising, sexual abuse like rape or inappropriate touching, emotional abuse like constant rejection and belittling or neglect.
Many organizations, such as schools and churches, have their own policy dealing with reporting child abuse.
“Anyone can have a protocol in their school or agency – it needs to be brought up – but it’s still the individual’s responsibility if the report never gets made,” Malone said.
Shelia Nabors, community partnership coordinator for DHS, said they don’t want to go into a home and take children, they just want to make sure the child is safe.
Nabors said many people won’t report because they aren’t 100 percent sure of abuse. “It’s our job to make sure and substantiate that. If you aren’t sure, call 1-800-222-8000 and let them decide if we need to follow up,” she said.
If someone is found to have had knowledge about child abuse and not report it to DHS, they can be charged with a misdemeanor that carries up to one year in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.
First Circuit Court District Attorney Trent Kelly said the penalty for not reporting isn’t the important thing to remember, it’s the child.
“You have a duty to report, it’s not about what can happen to you but that you have a duty to the safety of a child,” Kelly said. “Not only are you allowed to protect a child, you’re required to, so you can’t get harassment from work because you’re protected by the law.”
The law, section 43-21-353, states it is the duty of every Mississippian to report child abuse, but specifically an attorney, physician, dentist, intern, resident, nurse, psychologist, social worker, family protection worker, family protection specialist, child caregiver, minister, law enforcement officer or school employee.
“The important thing is that people need to know if we expect children to be successful, then they have to advocate for them at all times and sometimes that means making the hard decision to make that call,” Nabors said.