D.C. weighs expanded sex abuse reporting

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder

District officials are considering legislation that would require nearly every adult in the nation's capital to report suspected incidents of child sexual abuse, though the top city lawmaker is doubting an estimate that the rules would generate more than 1,000 new reports a year.

"I believe strongly there's a lot of hesitation on the part of people to report," D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the measure's author, told The Washington Examiner. "The bill is really designed to give a clear message that everybody has a duty to report when it comes to a child being sexually abused."

D.C. law already requires most medical professionals, as well as District employees and representatives, to report suspected abuse. Under Mendelson's proposal, which he said was an outgrowth of the Penn State abuse scandal, that mandate would expand to include any person who is at least 18 years old with "reasonable cause" to think that a child was a sexual abuse victim.

To get help
> To report child abuse and neglect, contact the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency's hotline at 202-671-SAFE (7233).

Violators would face a civil fine of up to $300 but no criminal prosecution.

The measure has a few exceptions, including one for victims who would be reporting their own abusers. Attorneys and ministers would also be exempt in select cases.

The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency estimated that the broadened requirements would lead to a 15 percent jump in the number of allegations the agency handles. It already receives about 600 calls per month.

Mendelson described that estimate of increased reports as "very exaggerated." He said the figure was the key flaw in a report from Natwar Gandhi, the District's chief financial officer, that said the proposal would cost the District $397,900 in the 2013 fiscal year if the new guidelines became effective on Jan 1.

"That fiscal impact [statement] is grossly out of whack," said Mendelson, who added that he expects the measure will ultimately pass. The full council could stage its first vote on the bill within weeks, John A. Wilson Building aides said, because a legislative committee has already signed off on it.

Mayor Vincent Gray's administration voiced concerns about the proposal in March, though Deputy Attorney General Cory Chandler said at the time that the executive branch recognized the "very important interests being addressed by this legislation and is sympathetic to them."

But Chandler also cautioned that the toughened requirements could lead to a wave of unsubstantiated reports.

"It may result in individuals making reports, out of an abundance of caution, to CFSA's hotline when there is vague or very little suspicion of sexual abuse," Chandler said. "Concerned citizens may make mistaken reports for fear of violating the mandatory reporting law."

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the mayor was working with Mendelson to resolve the administration's concerns and was "hopeful that we can come to an agreement."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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