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Scott signs Penn State scandal-inspired bill into law

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

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.

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Penn State-inspired abuse reporting measure with $1 million penalty headed to Scott

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

College and university administrators could be fined $1 million per incident for failing to report child abuse that takes place on campus under a bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott

The measure was inspired by the Penn State University child abuse scandal. The Florida “Protection of Vulnerable Persons” measure (HB 1355) would impose a fine of up to $1 million for each time any public or private university or college administration knowingly and willfully fails to report child abuse that occurs on campus. If signed into law by Scott, Florida would become the first state in the country with such a law.

The child molestation scandals inspired 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. Her organization Lauren’s Kids works to prevent childhood sexual abuse.

“The bill ensures that the protection of a child is treated as a greater priority than the reputation of an institution,” Lauren Book said in a press release. “It sets a national standard in affirming that child abuse reporting is everyone’s responsibility.”

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.

The bill also makes the Department of Children and Families’ child abuse hotline the sole entity responsible for handling child abuse reports. Now, the hotline is only required to accept reports if caregivers are suspected of sexually abusing the children. DCF officials say they take all calls and refer calls about abuse other than by caregivers to local authorities. The change would require hotline operators to process all abuse complaints.

The House unanimously passed the measure Friday evening with a 117-0 vote. Yesterday, the Senate approved it 35-4. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, was among those voting against it. He said the bill goes too far by requiring anyone to report suspected child abuse because different cultures have different standards of what constitutes abuse and what is considered acceptable discipline of a child.

Heated debate over Penn State-inspired measure as clock winds down

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 by Dara Kam

After a heated debate on a Penn State-inspired measure dealing with child abuse reporting, the Senate included a change critics complained is overreaching and rejected repeated efforts to weaken the proposed financial penalties on colleges and universities.

The proposal (HB 1355) would require anyone to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Department of Children and Families hotline. Now, the hotline is only required to accept reports if caregivers are suspected of sexually abusing the children. DCF officials say they take all calls and refer calls about abuse other than by caregivers to local authorities. The change would require hotline operators to process all abuse complaints.

Sen. Joe Negron said the measure goes too far and ignores personal and cultural differences regarding what constitutes abuse.

“Some people think it’s abusive to raise your voice to a child,” Negron, R-Stuart, argued. “It seems like it’s almost turning every Floridian into an informant for the government.

And Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich cautioned that the abuse hotline is already overloaded.

“We need to be very careful,” Rich, D-Weston, said. “We can revisit it next year so we don’t have everybody calling the hotline and the hotline not being able to handle it because they can’t even handle what they’re required to do now.”

Sen. Ronda Storms acknowledged that the proposal could be problematic but said she tried to narrow it with an amendment.

“I’m going to get hate mail on this but I spank. I spank my children” which could make her vulnerable to being reported as a child abuser, Storms, R-Valrico, said.

The bill is being pushed by influential lobbyist Ron Book and his daughter Lauren, a childhood sexual abuse survivor and founder of advocacy organization “Lauren’s Kids,” who watched from the first row of the public gallery overlooking the chamber.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn tried but failed to lower the penalties against college and university officials from $1 million to $25,000 and also failed to include reporting of hazing by officials and students in the bill.

But the Senate rejected her attempts.

“We can’t stick up for institutions over people,” Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said. “If the Penn State thing happened here, a million bucks wouldn’t be enough. People would want his head. I’m sorry this became a university funding issue rather than a child abuse issue.”

With two days left until the session ends, the Senate will vote on the measure tomorrow and send it to the House for approval.

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