D.C. to broaden sexual abuse reporting rules

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Photo - D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (Examiner file photo)
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (Examiner file photo)
Local,DC,Alan Blinder

The D.C. Council unanimously approved a plan Thursday that will require nearly every adult in the city to report suspected child sexual abuse to authorities, a strategy that its author said was an outgrowth of the abuse scandal within Pennsylvania State University's football program.

"This is not about punishing people who ought to be reporting. This is about encouraging reporting," said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who crafted the proposal about two months after the Penn State tragedy became public amid an onslaught of criminal charges. "The perpetrator here is the abuser, and we're not interested in punishing other people. We're interested in encouraging and sending a clear message that if you see or you believe that there is child sexual abuse, you report."

The measure, which Mayor Vincent Gray has said he will sign into law, requires any person who is at least 18 years old and has "reasonable cause" to think that a child is a victim of sexual abuse to disclose their concerns. Violators would be subject to a fine of up to $300.

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Although it included exemptions in select cases for abuse victims, attorneys and ministers, the proposal represents a broad expansion of existing reporting requirements.

D.C. law already mandated that most medical professionals, along with District employees and representatives, report suspicions of abuse, but it did not require ordinary residents to contact authorities.

The District initially predicted the new requirements, which would be similar to those already in place in 18 states, would lead to more than 1,000 new reports annually, though it later revised its estimate and projected a "small" increase.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it was disappointed in the council's vote.

"Sexual abuse of children is a serious problem and we don't want to minimize that, but making every citizen a mandatory reporter is not a smart approach," said Arthur Spitzer, the legal director of the local affiliate, adding that he was worried about a flood of reports overwhelming authorities.

Lawmakers considered the measure during one of the final council sessions before legislators adjourn for the year. Any bills that aren't approved by then will die.

The council Thursday also signed off on an environmental proposal that includes a provision to require large businesses to keep their doors closed when running air conditioning systems.

"This is a piece of legislation that could have a rather dramatic effect, even though it seems small in an individual case," said Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh, the proposal's sponsor.

Cheh cited a study that showed propping open doors in the summer months can increase energy use by 25 percent.

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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Alan Blinder

Staff Reporter, D.C. City Hall
The Washington Examiner