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New 'Speak Up' law proposed at sex-abuse hearing

WASHINGTON - Using the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal as a catalyst to review federal law on child protection, a Senate panel is considering legislation to require all adults - not just social-service professionals - to report to police any time a child is molested.

"Child abuse is the ultimate betrayal . . . and it happens because adults fail," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), sponsor of the Speak Up to Protect Every Abused Kid Act of 2011.

Expanding a 1974 federal law on child abuse prevention, Speak Up would require all adults to do just that. But the states would be allowed to determine precisely how to implement it.

For more than two hours today, the panel heard testimony from experts, including Frank Cervone, director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, which provides pro bono legal services for abused and neglected children.

Alluding to the arrest of Penn State's former football coach Jerry Sandusky on charges he assaulted multiple children over more than a decade, Cervone said, "We needed these scandals . . . needed even these bad actors, to bring this discussion forward."

Experts agreed that children often are victimized by a trusted adult, and victimized a second time if the other adults in whom they confide don't believe them.

However, added Cervone, "there is another theme in the Penn State case that should not go unnoticed: Lives were changed because a couple of moms believed their children, and now are standing with them."

Eighteen states - Pennsylvania and New Jersey not among them - already have laws requiring any adult to report child sexual abuse, although the states vary on whether the person reporting the assault has to have witnessed it. Delaware requires every adult to report.

After the hearing, Casey said the subcommittee on children and families will continue fact-finding when Congress resumes after the holiday recess.

He said he will ask the Department of Health and Human Services to study the data from the 18 states with universal mandated reporting, in an attempt to evaluate what impact, if any, that approach has on preventing child sexual abuse.