House committee signs off on Penn State scandal-inspired crackdown on child molestorsby Dara Kam | February 23rd, 2012
A House panel unanimously approved a measure that would punish universities, colleges and schools for failing to report child molestation with a $1 million fine per incident and heightened penalties for child molesters.
Child sexual abuse scandals at Penn State University, Syracuse University and the Citadel prompted Rep. Chris Dorworth to sponsor the measure at the request of influential lobbyist Ron Book, whose daughter Lauren is a child abuse survivor and advocate whose organization Lauren’s Kids works to prevent childhood sexual abuse.
The scandals at the universities outside Florida exposed loopholes in state law, Book said, about required reporting of suspected sexual abuse on minors.
Current law only requires people to report suspected child sexual abuse if the perpetrator is believed to be a caretaker of the child. The bill (HB 1355) would change that, and also require that the Department of Children and Families child abuse hotline handle reports of any kind. Currently, hotline operators accept all calls but refer some callers to law enforcement agencies.
“What you find is that universities, especially ones that have popular athletic programs…People try to protect those institutions. And when they do that, they make a decision that the institution is more important than the child,” Dorworth, R-Lake Mary.
Former Penn State defensive coordinator Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky was arrested last year on charges that he sexually abused at least eight boys over a 15-year period. After Sandusky’s arrest, the university fired long-time coach Joe Paterno, who died last month, and president Graham Spanier. Athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president stepped down from their positions and are accused of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.
“We learned a lot of things out of the Penn State, Syracuse and Citadel cases,” Book told the committee. “This bill fixes those issues in Florida and makes certain that Florida means business…that we’re going to punish those people seriously, significantly and substantially.”
The bill also includes $1.5 million – $1,500 per victim – to help sex abuse victims relocate. A similar bill is moving in the House.