A panel of witnesses told a D.C. Council committee on Monday that a proposal to require anyone who suspects that a child is a victim of sexual abuse is too broad, too harsh and unlikely to curb the assaults.

"The proposed bill would represent a dramatic expansion of the reporting obligation to make it apply to every single adult, with no exceptions," said Cory Chandler, a D.C. deputy attorney general. "We are concerned that this approach, if adopted, would be overbroad and could threaten to create more problems."

Under the measure, anyone over the age of 18 "who knows or has reasonable cause to believe that a child is a victim of sexual abuse" would be required to report their suspicions to the police or the Child and Family Services Agency. Failing to do so would potentially bring a jail term of up to 90 days.

Growing trend
Along with the District, 26 states have approved or are weighing proposals to require anyone who suspects the sexual abuse of a child to report it to authorities.
Required: Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming
Proposed: California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

The bill, which at-large Councilman Phil Mendelson authored, already has enough sponsors for passage. Eighteen states already have similar laws, and comparable proposals are pending in eight states.

Since a Pennsylvania grand jury indicted a former Penn State University football coach on abuse allegations -- and two school officials for failing to report suspected abuse -- in November, a collection of states have sought to enhance their reporting laws. In some, governors issued executive orders to strengthen reporting laws more quickly.

Mendelson said the Penn State episode prompted him to review the District's reporting practices.

"It's complicated who is required to report," Mendelson said of the District's current system, which requires certain professionals like teachers and physicians to report suspected abuse. "There isn't this very simple sense that if you see or you have reason to believe that there is a child who's sexually abused, you have to report it."

But some child welfare advocates were not convinced the proposal would help.

"This would discourage many victims from coming forward and seeking help," said Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children's Law Center.