In the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal at St. George's School, Rhode Island lawmakers are considering legislation that would close a loophole in the state’s mandatory child abuse reporting law.
The loophole, first reported by Rhode Island Public Radio, seems to allow schools and other institutions to avoid reporting abuse allegations against their employees.
Peg Langhammer pulls up a chair in a conference room at Day One, the organization she runs for survivors of sexual abuse. She is driving an amendment to Rhode Island’s mandatory child abuse and neglect reporting law to make it clear that schools must report employees suspected of abusing students to the State Department of Children Youth and Families, or DCYF.
"This really came to light as a result of all of the St. George's cases," said Langhammer. "When St. George's interpretation of the statute was that they didn’t have to report to DCYF, and therefore there was no investigation after many cases of alleged abuse."
Those cases include a former athletic director, a choir director and a chaplain, all at the Episcopal St. George’s boarding school. And while the school fired some of the employees, they never reported them to child welfare officials.
After the scandal went public, another question surfaced: would DCYF investigate a school if someone did report abuse?
DCYF said no, that would be a matter for the police. That worried advocates like Langhammer.
"The concern here is people don’t always want to go to the police first. As we see in so many cases of child sexual abuse, with DCYF getting involved early on it can build a better case," Langhammer said. "It can determine whether or not there is enough to go forward with a legal case. The legal piece of it is not where people go first all the time."
In fact, Langhammer estimates that just 16 percent of all sexual assaults get reported to police. She was surprised when DCYF said it would not investigate inside a school, and so was the Rhode Island Attorney General.
"For as long as anyone in this office can remember, going back over 30 years. Our interpretation of the mandatory reporting statute is that it would cover schools and educators," said Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.
"Its unfathomable, especially if you think that a school, particularly a boarding school, has a great deal of custodial responsibility of children," Kempe said.
The Attorney General's interpretation of the statute may be right, but Langhammer decided not to wait for a court case to find out. She gathered a group of legislators and state officials, to look at how to write schools into the reporting statute.
"We were as shocked as they were at DCYF’s recent interpretation of the statute," said Langhammer. "But having said that, it’s not okay to let it be. We felt, okay if we can make it crystal clear, then let’s do it."
If the bill passes, DCYF says it will give them new authority to initiate investigations of sexual abuse in public and private schools, and home-school settings. The bill would also require DCYF to notify local and state police.
An investigation by DCYF is important, advocates say, because sexual abuse charges can be difficult to pursue in the criminal courts, in part due to the high standard for criminal convictions: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
DCYF uses a different standard, known as "preponderance of the evidence," meaning strong evidence to support the allegations.
"If an investigation ends up being indicated, which means there is a preponderance of the evidence that the action has occurred, it would be what we call 'indicated' in our system," said Jamia McDonald, who's currently overseeing operations at DCYF. "When there are future licensing requests or when someone does research that allows them to look at our child abuse database, that information would be available."
So a potential employers could find out whether the child welfare agency found evidence of sexual abuse, or that’s the idea. But the DCYF database is available only to the agency and its contractors, not schools and many other organizations that work with children.
And there’s another catch: the bill does not mention religious or civic organizations like the Boy Scouts. DCYF says those cases would still be referred to police.
At the Statehouse, in her office above the Senate chambers, Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin prepares for the final days of the legislative session. She sponsored the amendment adding schools to the mandatory child abuse reporting law, and she admits, it’s not perfect.
"Obviously in a perfect world we would not have children subject to sexual abuse first and foremost," said Goodwin. "
But Goodwin sees the bill as a step in the right direction.
"Each little step we take to try to protect our state’s children is important, and I think this is one of them," said Goodwin. "Requiring DCYF to take action within 24 hours of a suspected sexual assault of a child, I think this is a beginning step. I mean, is this going to solve all of the problems? No, sadly it’s not."
It’s a step that has support from advocates like Day One, child welfare officials, and the Attorney General's Office, although the AG believes the clarification is unnecessary. The bill cleared the Senate earlier this month, but lawmakers have yet to take it up in the house.
Update: On June 17th, House lawmakers passed the bill explicitly adding schools to Rhode Island's child abuse reporting statute. The measure is in the process of being transferred to Gov. Gina Raimondo for her signature.