For several weeks, we have been astonished by the child sexual abuse allegations against former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky and, most recently, the grand jury report that detailed these horrible accusations. Sandusky was charged with sexually assaulting eight “at-risk boys” over a 15-year period. We know the term “at-risk boys” is likely to mean African-American youth who have a high probability of being in foster care. This assumption is supported by the fact that although 13.6 percent of the US population is African-American, 30 percent of children in foster care are Black. While we cannot confirm that the Penn. State victims are Black, it is reasonable to assume so given the national statistics of foster youth. The Black Administrators in Child Welfare organization has also been consulted in an attempt to identify the ethnicity of the Penn State victims.
This week I came together with my Democratic and Republican colleagues to introduce the Speak Out to Stop Child Abuse Act, which will require all adults over the age of 18 to report sexual abuse against a child to law enforcement officials or state child protective service agencies. Currently, only 18 states and Puerto Rico mandate that all adults must report child abuse to police or state agencies. The remaining states either limit the mandated reporters to specific professions such as medical professionals, teachers or law enforcement offices, or only require an internal report to a leadership official within an organization, such as Penn State.
The Speak Out to Stop Child Abuse Act improves federal law to ensure that abuses against children do not go unreported and holds adults accountable if they witness a child being sexually abused. Adults like the Penn. State official, who failed to stop the assault and call the police after what he witnessed in the shower should not just be penalized in the court of public opinion, but also in the court of law. Although, many times the African American community is negatively affected when a new criminal penalty is enacted, with the SOS Child Abuse Act, that is not the case. That is why this bill was narrowly targeted to focus on a person who witnesses child sexual abuse. This bill will make it everyone’s responsibility to act.
It’s inconceivable that a prestigious university such as Penn. State would turn a blind eye to such horrendous accusations and even more unimaginable that the Penn State official who witnessed the rape in the shower did not physically stop the violent act from happening and then call 911. Sadly, failing to act when a child is been assaulted is not new. We should all remember the assault and murder of Sherrice Iverson in Nevada, where a man witnessed the young girl being raped and strangled to death in a casino bathroom. A law was not in place to hold him accountable until 1999, when similar legislation to the SOS Child Abuse Act was signed into law in California. This type of injustice should never occur again, and my hope is that the Speak Out to Stop Child Abuse Act reminds us of our duty to do what is right and prosecute individuals who fail to protect our community’s future–our children.
Improving the foster care system and the lives of foster youth will take a long-term commitment on the part of our nation. As a Co-chair of the Congressional Foster Youth Caucus, I have helped to organize two briefings to assist my colleagues in the Caucus gain knowledge of child welfare issues from both government and child advocacy perspectives, and next year, Caucus members will begin a listening tour around the country to look at best practices and ways our country’s child welfare system can be improved in both rural and urban communities.
Karen Bass represents the 33rd Congressional District, which includes Los Angeles, Hollywood and Culver City and was the 67th Speaker of the California Assembly.