Scott signs Penn State scandal-inspired bill into lawby Dara Kam | April 27th, 2012
Gov. Rick Scott signed into law four measures – including a proposal inspired by the Penn State child molestation scandal – today after being blasted by victim advocates for vetoing $1.5 million for rape crisis centers around the state earlier this month.
At the top of the list of the bills Scott signed today is the “Protection of Vulnerable Persons” measure (HB 1355) making Florida the first state in the nation to impose the hefty fine for each incident of child abuse higher education institutions – both public and private – fail to report.
Child advocates said the hefty fines and new mandatory reporting requirements make Florida’s law the strongest in the country.
“Florida is the leader in protecting children and families from sexual violence. It’s a truly wonderful day,” said Lauren Book, a child sexual abuse survivor and the founder of “Lauren’s Kids” advocacy group. Lauren Book and her father Ron Book, a prominent Capitol lobbyist, pushed for the bill.
The new law, which goes into effect on Oct. 1, imposes a $1 million-per-incident fine on college and university administrators who knowingly withhold information about child sex abuse on campus or at institution-sponsored events.
The new Florida law is one of dozens considered or passed in other states in the wake of child molestation scandals at Penn State University, Syracuse University and The Citadel. The Penn State scandal came to light in November and resulted in the ouster of the football team’s beloved, veteran coach Joe Paterno, who died earlier this year.
Last year, 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.
Like Florida’s, proposals in other states add coaches, athletic directors or university officials to the list of “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse or neglect. In the past month, such bills have been signed in Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, with several other states expected to follow suit.
The Florida law also puts college and university law enforcement agencies on the hook if they fail to turn over suspected abuse reports to prosecutors.
Scott angered advocates earlier this month when he red-lined $1.5 million for rape crisis centers from the state’s $70 billion budget. Critics called the veto especially egregious because it happened in April, Sexual Violence Awareness Month.
But Scott defended the veto, saying money elsewhere in the budget covered rape crisis centers and domestic abuse victims, and reiterated his support for those programs on Friday in a press release announcing the bill signings. The release noted that the state $70 billion budget includes $6.5 million for rape prevention and sexual assault services and $29 million for domestic violence programs.
“This critical legislation I have signed into law shows the valuable steps Florida has made in protecting the rights of victims,” Scott said in a statement. “April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and this week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and it is an important time to raise attention to promoting victims’ rights and remember those lives affected by violence.”
The child molestation scandal-inspired measure also includes what child sex abuse victim advocates say is a critical change in who must report child sex abuse and why.
Current Florida law limits mandatory reporting of child sex abuse to when the suspect is a caregiver of a child. The new law would require anyone – including children – to report any suspected sex abuse, regardless of who the alleged perpetrator is, to the Department of Children and Families hotline. And it increases the penalties for knowingly failing to report child abuse from a misdemeanor to a third degree felony, elevating potential prison sentences from a minimum of one year to up to 15 years and fines from a maximum of $1,000 to a maximum of $5,000.
The new law also requires hotline operators to refer abuse reports that don’t directly accuse a caregiver to the appropriate authority instead of advising callers to contact law enforcement officials. DCF investigators would continue to be responsible for handling reports that involve a parent, guardian or other caregiver.
The change is expected to generate up to another 50,000 calls annually to the state hotline, which handled about 470,000 calls last year. Lawmakers included more than $2 million to hire 47 new workers to handle the calls and to cover other costs including educating the public about making the calls.
Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins said he anticipates the new law make the hotline even busier. Operators there saw a nearly 12 percent jump in calls reporting abuse last year, Wilkins said.
But the agency has already been working on a revamped hotline that will allow people to report abuse online, including Internet web chats. That system is expected to be up-and-running this fall, Wilkins said.
“It’s a good bill. It’s always good to promote awareness of child abuse and neglect so that’s what I think this bill does,” he said.
The new law also includes first-ever sexual abuse victim relocation assistance. The legislature included $1.5 million – up to $3,000 per victim – to help them relocate.