Laws prompt more reports of child abuse
Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 2:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 2:17 p.m.
Reports of suspected child abuse in Alachua County and the state have climbed in recent months since new reporting laws went into effect, and the Florida Department of Children and Families is attributing that jump to the laws.
Meanwhile, anyone who sees or has a suspicion of abuse who does not report it now faces a third-degree felony charge instead of a misdemeanor.
DCF regional spokesman John Harrell said the new laws are intended to uncover more cases of abuse, much of which goes unreported.
"Now we have one of the toughest laws in the country on this. It is dependent on the public to report it. There is no way we can find out about it if it is not reported," Harrell said.
DCF investigates allegations of abuse by a child's caregiver. Law enforcement investigates allegations of abuse by someone other than a caregiver.
Previously, the state's hotline would accept reports of suspected child abuse only against a caregiver. Callers who wanted to report abuse by a non-caregiver were asked to call police instead. DCF believes some callers got discouraged by that and did not call police.
Now, however, the hotline reports will be taken on anyone who is suspected. That could include teachers, coaches or neighbors. The system will automatically forward a report to police. State DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said about 500 additional calls a month statewide have been attributed to changes in the law, which took effect in October.
"We will see an increase in the number of calls to the hotline and an increase in the number of cases we are reporting to law enforcement," Gillespie said. "Since the law passed, we are sending about 500 calls a month to law enforcement that before we didn't get."
Gillespie said 47 new positions for hotline call-takers were created. DCF did not increase the number of investigators because most of the added cases concern non-caregivers and will be handled by police.
Still, even the number of cases in Alachua County under DCF's jurisdiction has jumped.
From September through December in 2012, 975 cases came under DCF investigation. In the same period for 2011, 962 cases were reported. And for the four-month stretch in 2010, 897 cases were reported. Data were not available for the number of new cases forwarded to police based on calls to the hotline.
The number of DCF cases in the region as a whole — Alachua, Bradford, Columbia Gilchrist, Levy, Putnam, Suwannee and Union counties — has dropped, Harrell said.
Florida statutes define abuse as "any willful act or threatened act that results in any physical, mental or sexual abuse, injury, or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child's physical, mental or emotional health to be significantly impaired. Abuse of a child includes acts or omissions. Corporal discipline of a child by a parent or legal custodian for disciplinary purposes does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child."
Both Gillespie and Eighth Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone said that, to their knowledge, no one in the state or circuit has been charged with failure to report.
Cervone added that it can be difficult to determine whether a particular incident is actually abuse that should be reported.
"How do you know?" Cervone said. "If you are dealing with sexual abuse, it's easy. But if you are dealing with physical abuse, it is very murky and you start getting into legitimate discipline, and whose definition of that do you use?"
Some examples of abuse that should be reported are an assault on a child with a weapon or something causing actual injury, Cervone said.
Gillespie said the changes, including harsher penalties for non-reporting, were spurred in part by the discovery of child sexual abuse committed by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Some of the abuse occurred at Penn State football facilities. In one instance, another assistant coach saw a sexual act involving Sandusky and a child but did not report it to police. Instead, he spoke to then-head coach Joe Paterno and university officials.
"I think it certainly was a factor," Gillespie said. "Obviously, corporal punishment is allowed in Florida, so spanking a child is not child abuse unless it causes physical damage to the child. If you really think a child is in danger, you should do the right thing anyway, but legally you are required to call. And if you are somewhere and a child is being beaten in front of you, you don't call the hotline, you call law enforcement."
The hotline number is 1-800-962-2873.
Cindy Swirko is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.
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