SBA holds forum to help explain legal issues involved in Sandusky controversy
November 17, 2011
As details of the Sandusky allegations at Penn State continue to flood national media outlets, the Student Bar Association (SBA) at Penn State Law hosted a panel discussion and forum for members of the Law School Community to attempt to clarify some of the legal issues involved in the case. Clinical Professor Lucy Johnston-Walsh ’97, director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic, and the Honorable Kim Gibson ’75, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and adjunct faculty member, led the discussion.
“If it can potentially happen at Beaver Stadium ... it can happen in the house right next door to you,” said Johnston-Walsh, setting the stage for the discussion about the legal policy and issues behind child abuse reports and investigations.
“The extensive media coverage, along with widespread speculation by commentators, has left many in our student community feeling confused or uncertain about what to believe,” said SBA President Zach Brecheisen ’12. “This forum [attempted] to clarify some of the legal issues involved in the criminal cases and gave students an opportunity to pose questions to two distinguished legal experts.”
Facts about child abuse
Last year there were more than 3,600 cases of confirmed child abuse in Pennsylvania alone. The number of unconfirmed reports in the state is three times as high, Johnston-Walsh explained.
“It’s hard for children to tell people that they’re being abused,” said Johnston-Walsh. “So we, as adults, need to look around and be aware that we could be close to somebody who is being abused. Keep in mind that the abuser is often somebody that [the child] is close to, and the child will want to stay with that person.”
In Pennsylvania, the Child Protective Services Act, 23 Pa.C.S. § 6301, is the mechanism for reporting and responding to child abuse. Anyone may file a report for child abuse, but some professionals, like doctors, are actually required to report suspected cases of child abuse.
The prosecutor in the case against Tim Curley and Gary Schultz declared that they both were legally required to report child abuse because they were in contact with children in the course of their employment and might have had reason to suspect child abuse. However, the statute is complicated and leaves much to be debated in court about who is legally required to report child abuse and what constitutes reason to suspect abuse, explained Johnston-Walsh.
“Nationally, 40 out of 1,000 children are reported to be child abuse victims every year. In Pennsylvania, the number is about 8 out of 1,000 children. The disparity begs the question: Is this a policy issue?” Johnston-Walsh asked the audience.
“There’s obviously a legislative component here, and it seems like a good idea to run some of that legislation by professors like Johnston-Walsh,” second-year law student Andrew Meyer said. “If you’re going to do this, do it right.”
When child abuse is reported in Pennsylvania, the case is heard before an investigating grand jury. The grand jury offers facts and recommendations to the prosecutor who then must decide whether or not to file charges. If the prosecutor does decide to file charges against the individual, the state police are authorized to arrest that individual and the case information is later filed in state court.
Employees who report child abuse in good faith are protected from employer retaliation by 23 Pa.C.S. §6301, and the consequences for failing to report range from criminal prosecutions to professional disciplinary actions. “The most dire consequence is that the child continues to be at risk of abuse,” said Johnston-Walsh.
Judge Gibson reminded law students that by virtue of their profession that they will undoubtedly be faced with challenging circumstances. “Do not think you that you won’t be presented with a difficult ethical situation because you will be,” said Gibson. “But ethical and moral conduct transcends the boundaries of what the law requires.... Ethical conduct and integrity comprise the foundation upon which a life well lived is built. And you all should be striving for a life well lived.”
Johnston-Walsh pointed out that this past summer by Penn State Law, the Penn State College of Medicine, and Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital launched the Look Out for Child Abuse website, lookoutforchildabuse.org, which simplifies the process for reporting suspected child abuse cases in Pennsylvania. Another resource available to report suspected child abuse in Pennsylvania is to call Childline at 1-800-932-0313 (TDD: 866-872-1677), available 24-hours per day, seven days a week.