Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Penn State University Controversy

In regards to the terrible tragedy for the alleged victims should these allegations prove to be true, not much can be said - it is a catastrophe of epic proportions; lives were forever marred by the abuse at the hands of a figure of trust. Coach Sandusky should be punished to the fullest extent of the law for what he allegedly did to these young boys - and that comes from this writer who is both a father of a young boy, and a criminal defense attorney. For those that are interested, you can read the full grand jury report of the horrific allegations here.

What is of interest and the purpose of this post is what people think should happen to those that knew of what had occurred and didn't do what was either morally or legally required of them as witnesses to these atrocities. And, is what was morally required of those with knowledge of what had or was occurring the same as what their legal obligations were or should be?

I can tell you that as an attorney, at least here in Oregon, we are what is called "mandatory reporters" of child abuse. This is a responsibility that must be taken seriously but, thankfully, is not one that I have had the unfortunate circumstance of having to participate in as of now. However, as a mandatory reporter, we can be held liable for abrogating our duty in this regard. While I have had my questions about how I feel about this responsibility being forced upon me by my local legislature and profession, this is a case that clearly illustrates why. How many children's lives, now forever scarred, could have been saved by someone stepping up and reporting Coach Sandusky? And then ensuring that that report was followed up on halting the abuse by either incarcerating Coach Sandusky and/or treating his illness. So, where do those who were aware of what had or was occurring stand now? Should they be criminally prosecuted? Civilly sued? What is the appropriate sanction, if any? And where does that line get drawn depending on their level of knowledge, ie, whether they witnessed it themselves, were told about it by others, etc etc. While some of this case is black and white (should Sandusky get prosecuted for example), a lot of is not? Or is it? What should happen, for example, to the legendary Jo Pa?

Another interesting wrinkle for us attorneys or, more importantly, criminal defense attorneys, occurs when we become aware of allegations of abuse or potential abuse, especially ongoing abuse, when we have a duty to our clients of confidentiality. The law, and more importantly, the attorneys involved have a difficult time reconciling this for obvious reasons.

And, what about when the "abuse" is less clear than what Coach Sandusky has now sort of admitted to doing. As a parent and a mandatory reporter, what are we supposed to do with the situation when you see a parent "disciplining" their child in the grocery store? Where is that line drawn with discipline, pulling, squeezing, slapping, spanking, or other physical contact between a parent and their child - as you can see, these are not easy questions to answer. I do not look forward to the day where I am faced with having to make such a judgment call. I know from my years of work in criminal defense that I have seen first-hand how these allegations can ruin the lives of the accused in immeasurable ways regardless of the veracity of the allegations.

In addition, I am not a perfect parent. I get mad at my kids when they misbehave. Who is to judge what I do in anger or discipline of my children? Do we all agree at where that line is between discipline and abuse? Obviously, we are not talking about sexual abuse like what occurred here, but we attorneys are mandatory reporters of any "abuse". If I drag my misbehaving child out of of the grocery store by their ear (WARNING: purely hypothetical situation, this has never actually happened to my children), should someone report me if they witness this and are mandatory reporters? And, who should these mandatory reporters be? Everyone? If not, why not? Why are some of us charged with this duty while others are not?

What say you?

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