7 On Your Side: Maryland bill to protect children may not be effective

7 On Your Side: Maryland bill to protect children may not be effective. (Photos courtesy of Police Departments)

Two Maryland legislative bills aiming to protect children from sexual abuse may have a loophole that could keep kids in danger.

One state's attorney is raising the alarm about the bill meant to prosecute educators and social service workers that fail to report child sexual abuse.

Teachers, police officers, healthcare employees are all mandatory reporters. That means they have a legal requirement to report claims of child sexual abuse to law enforcement.

But in Maryland, if they don't, they face no criminal punishment.

Deonte Carraway, John Vigna and Lawrence Joynes are just some of the former Maryland school employees convicted of sexually abusing children. Court records show school administration suspected those three educators years in advance of their arrests, but did not report those suspicions to law enforcement.

“Back in 2013, a letter went out that was copied to about a dozen administrators, all notifying them that John Vigna was engaging in lap sitting. Lap sitting is as bad as it sounds. It is like a lap dance with a small child on your lap. So all of these administrators were notified that John Vigna was lap sitting with these little girls and yet none of them reported,” said Janis Sartucci with the Montgomery County Parents Coalition.

Montgomery County Public Schools had an internal list of more than 200 employees accused of sex crimes against students. The district’s legal team did not report that list to law enforcement until 2015.

Adam Rosenberg with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center points out there are two states that don't have criminal penalties when mandatory reporters fail to report child sexual abuse: Wyoming and Maryland.

"We've been debating this issue for years in Annapolis and the Maryland legislature, post-Sandusky, post-Catholic church."

Maryland Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Rockville) voted against criminal penalties, saying those who fail to report should lose their license, not their freedom. “Jail isn't going to solve the problem," said Del. Dumais.

A Maryland legislative bill failed twice before. State Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) is leading the third try to punish those who fail to report child sex abuse.

"You are literally turning a blind eye to the abuse of a child when you have actual knowledge of that abuse. That is beyond a license problem. That goes to criminality," Zirkin said.

Notice the phrase: "actual knowledge." It's in both the Senate and the House bill.

It could be interpreted by a court that a person actually has to witness, not just hear about sexual abuse to be compelled to report it.

"To have actual knowledge, no other state has that as a requirement. It sets an impossibly high standard,” said Jennifer Alvaro with the Montgomery County Parents Coalition. “I am heartbroken to say I cannot support what's being put forward now. I think it's a Trojan horse. I think this is being done for show.”

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby wrote lawmakers saying it would be "nearly impossible" for her prosecutors to go after mandatory reporters who ignore the law because it's difficult to prove "actual knowledge."

The bills make failure to report a misdemeanor. Any prosecution would have a one-year time limit. Once a sexual abuse victim turns 18, any window to prosecute mandatory reporters who fail to notify law enforcement is also closed, according to the bills.

“That absolves all of our administrators from reporting what they learn in year 2, 3, 4 and 5,” Sartucci said.

The "Failure to Report" bill, as written, is expected to pass the legislature within weeks.

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