LANSING, MI (WLNS) – The Michigan House and Senate are both behind a package of bills designed to improve how our state handles child abuse and prevent another sexual abuse scandal like the one involving Larry Nassar.
However, the two chambers disagree on what changes need to happen.
One major theme we saw with the Nassar case is that women were telling coaches and trainers about Nassar’s questionable treatments and majority of the time, nothing was done about it.
Critics argue that had those coaches and trainers been mandatory reporters, Nassar would not have been able to carry on for as long as he did.
The Senate proposed package of bills addressed this issue by expanding the list to add coaches, but the House scaled that back.
Make no mistake, the House package of bills does a number of positive things like extends the statute of limitations on both criminal and civil lawsuits for childhood sexual assault, implements more sex education, and adds trainers, physical therapists, and their assistants to our state’s mandatory reporter list.
However, research, data, and experts, don’t back up the reasons lawmakers cited for not adding coaches to the list.
Under Michigan law, mandatory reporters are always required to report suspected child abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services.
Lawmakers in the House said adding coaches to the list of mandatory reporters would not have stopped the abuse by Nassar, because CPS only investigates if the suspected abuser is a parent, teacher, or member of the clergy.
They aren’t wrong.
In this case, Nassar was a gymnastics doctor and would not have been investigated by CPS.
However, Child Protective Services still takes reports on any suspected child abuse, and according to a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, if they don’t investigate themselves, the report is referred to law enforcement.
So, when Larissa Boyce told former MSU Gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages in 1997 that Nassar touched her inappropriately, this is likely what would have happened if Klages reported it.
The House Law and Justice Committee made the changes after listening to several weeks of testimony and shortly after Michigan State University agreed to settle a $500 million lawsuit with more than 250 Nassar survivors.
“We figured out how to be deliberative with the process to look at real data, real facts, real testimony, real life people telling us the positive, the negatives, and consequences,” said State Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Wixom.
One of those people was Scott Seabolt, a member of the Board of Directors of the Detroit Police Athletic League.
While he said he supports efforts to protect the victims of sexual misconduct and child abuse, making coaches mandatory reporters would have a “chilling effect” on potential volunteers by placing them at an increased risk of liability.
Seabolt also said extending the statute of limitations for a period of 30 to 40 years would expose non-profits to civil liability.
“It’s almost counterintuitive to create a law that specifically targets volunteers and places them at an increased risk of liability by virtue of their volunteerism,” Seabolt said.
“Moreover, by specifically targeting volunteers involved in scholastic and recreational activities, the proposed language creates a disincentive for volunteers to support organizations like Detroit PAL.”
Marci Hamilton, the founder and CEO of the national nonprofit CHILD USA has been researching this topic for more than two decades.
“Apparently there are huge problems about sex abuse in sports in the state of Michigan or the coaches wouldn’t be so fearful,” she said.
“Many states have many more categories and include coaches for example, unlike Michigan,” Hamilton said.
Justice for victims in Michigan is small, she said. So is the number of mandated reporters.
“What’s ironic is the scandal that’s prompted Michigan to reconsider these laws is a court case scandal and you would think that given the facts that we learned, mandated reporting would be something we learned for every child at every level,” Hamilton said.
She also said that it makes sense to have a provision in the law, much like what the Whistleblower Protection Act does, to protect those who report.
Mandated reporters in Michigan cannot be dismissed or penalized for making a report that the law requires under the law or for cooperating with an investigation.
“In this day and age, it is indefensible that you should be able to keep this secret of suspected child abuse,” she said. “That’s what creates more victims and that’s what will destroy sports in the state of Michigan.”
Mandatory reporters, under the law, have established relationships with children based on their profession.
According to the non-profit Darkness to Light, people who molest children look and act like everyone else. In fact, 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their abuser.
“People who sexually abuse children can be found in families, schools, churches, recreation centers, youth sports leagues, and any other place children gather,” the organization says.
One activity that involves the single largest group of children in the United States is sports, according to Hamilton.
“There are more kids involved in sports than any other activity in the United States,” she said. “The numbers are extraordinary. They’re much larger than involvement in religious organizations and in specific schools and universities.”
Consider this: In February, President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that requires adults who interact with amateur athletes, to report suspected child sex abuse to authorities.
It’s called the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act. It was drafted in response to the sex abuse scandal facing USA Gymnastics.
Hamilton said it was originally passed with the idea to cover the national governing bodies such as the Olympic organizations in the U.S., but it was expanded to include all children involved in organized sports that ever get involved in a tournament, such as AAU teams.
There are other solutions, she said, for sports leagues that fear liability issues when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse.
One of them is to look at the insurance companies that insure them.
“Insurance companies have been insuring organizations for decades for child sex abuse,” Hamilton said. “They have been collecting premiums.”
She believes it’s the insurance companies that can help turn this around.
“Just in the same way they were instrumental in persuading everybody of the requirement to wear seatbelts,” she said. “They should make it an annual requirement of every youth serving organization that they must go through a child protection audit.”
If the organization does not have the proper policies in place to protect children, Hamilton believes they should refuse coverage.
Increased penalties for mandatory reporters
Lawmakers also took issue with increasing the penalty for mandatory reporters who fail to report right away.
They cited a case out of Pennsylvania, where laws were changed to make the penalty greater, saying more kids died due to an influx in calls and caseloads.
Hamilton said that couldn’t be further from the truth, at least for now.
“It hasn’t been clear in Pennsylvania exactly what caused the greater risk to children, there’s no question that’s still being studied,” Hamilton said.
“We do know the task force was in effect, we do know that laws were changed but we still don’t know was it because there wasn’t enough government funding? They didn’t hire enough people to begin with? They weren’t trained adequately? Why did these cases fall through the cracks? There’s still so many answers that just have been not clear.”
Right now in Michigan, mandatory reporters who fail to report suspected child abuse could face both civil and criminal liability.
When it comes to criminal action, the mandated reporter could face a misdemeanor charge and spend up to 93 days in jail and a $500 fine.
When lawmakers in the Senate introduced its version of the Nassar inspired bills, it included legislation that increased the maximum penalty to one year imprisonment, up to a $1,000 fine, or both.
House lawmakers said there were concerns that people may feel more obligated to report suspected abuse, for precautionary reasons, simply because of the harsher penalty.
They worried that this could increase caseloads and cause problems for children who are actually being abused.
From October 1, 2017 to the end of April 2018, there were 101,412 complaints of suspected child abuse, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Of those complaints, 15,022 resulted in confirmed cases of abuse and neglect involving 23,475 children.
There were 56,706 cases assigned for investigation.
“Even when allegations do not meet the criteria for investigation or when we investigate and do not confirm abuse or neglect, we do have staff engage with the family and can refer them to community resources to help keep their children safe,” Bob Wheaton, public information officer for MDHHS said.
And when it comes to funding a department such as this, Wheaton said increasing child welfare system staffing levels so that there can be lower caseloads to better protect children, has been a priority for Governor Rick Snyder and his administration.
“He and the Legislature have provided additional funding,” he said. “The state hired 700 additional Children’s Protective caseworkers and 400 additional foster care workers in 2011 and 2012. MDHHS has maintained higher staffing levels since then.”
Statute of Limitations
The Senate’s bill pack gave victims of childhood sexual assault more time to file civil lawsuits by allowing people to retroactively file them for abuse dating back to 1997.
The House narrowed that time to a 90-day retroactive window and said it would only apply to those who had been sexually abused by physicians under the guise of medical treatment and had been convicted of sex charges.
“It’s just an odd legislative decision because it is solely tailored to this one set of victims,” Hamilton said. “All the other victims in the state, whether they’re from a church or a school, a family, essentially they’ve been told their claims don’t count.”
House lawmakers said they considered testimony from groups like the Catholic Church who said it would open the door to an avalanche of lawsuits.
Hamilton’s research says otherwise.
She said states such as Delaware, California, and Minnesota that opened up its statute of limitations for expired claims, did not see a large increase in claims at all.
“In fact, it was a very modest number of claims,” she said. “CHILD USA has tracked how many claims came forward in each state that tried to do this.”
Let’s look at the state of California for example: During a one-year period in 2003, there were 1,150 claims out of a population base of 35 million.
“It’s just not that many claims,” Hamilton said. “The people who typically lobby against this are the insurance industries and chambers of commerce and religious organizations, they always say there’s going to be an avalanche of claims or there’s going to be all these false claims, but they never have hard data.”
The hard data collected by CHILD USA shows just the opposite, according to Hamilton.
“These laws create more justice, the public learns about more perpetrators but they are not burdensome on the courts and it is not the fact that the sky falls,” she said.
In Hamilton’s opinion, Michigan needs to do three things in order to prevent another Nassar situation.
First, open up the statute of limitations for expired claims for at least one year.
“And they need to make it public so that all the victims in the state know about it,” Hamilton said. “That is the only way that they’re going to learn who their hidden predators are in the schools, in the churches, in the boarding schools, in the drama clubs, in the sports teams.”
Right now, Hamilton said, there are predators who live in the state of Michigan because it’s an “excellent state for them on the statute of limitations.”
Second, eliminate the statute of limitations on the criminal side for all sex abuse, not just for felonies.
Hamilton also believes lawmakers should revisit the idea of extending the statute of limitations even further than what’s heading to the governor’s desk right now.