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Michigan Senate Panel: Coaches Must Report Sexual Abuse

Larry Nassar photo
WKAR file photo
Larry Nassar

Sports coaches are rejoining the list of people required to report child abuse under a batch of Michigan bills spurred by the Larry Nassar scandal, a Senate committee unanimously decided on Wednesday.

Lawmakers convened in a hearing to clear for a Senate vote 24 bills that would revamp how Michigan prosecutes and reports sexual assault. They also moved forward an amendment to mandate that paid coaches and assistant coaches at K-12 and college athletics programs report suspected child abuse and neglect, bucking the House's earlier decision to remove them due to concerns about clogging the child welfare system with excess reports.

The update is the latest iteration of the legislation introduced in the wake of Nassar molesting hundreds of girls and women while employed as a sports doctor at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, a training ground for Olympians. Nassar is now imprisoned after pleading guilty to sexual assault and possessing child pornography.

State Sen. Rick Jones, a Grand Ledge Republican and chair of the Senate committee reporting the bills, said he restored the provision because Nassar victims said coaches had brushed aside warnings of the ex-doctor's abusive treatments.

"All of the citizens I talked to want the coaches back in," Jones said. "(Some coaches) don't seem to want anything bad to be known about their facility and this is a step to make sure we bring this out and we end the culture of silence."

Several top MSU officials have left or were ousted since the scandal erupted, including a former head gymnastics coach accused of dissuading a teen athlete who complained about Nassar.

The amended package awaits approval in both of Michigan's Republican-controlled chambers, which wind down their legislative sessions in the next couple weeks. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said he does not yet have a timeline for the vote. Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Tom Leonard, said the lower chamber will decide its stance after the Senate's vote.

Jones said he wishes the proposal could match Senate-passed legislation that includes college employees and volunteers but "this was a compromise."

In at least 18 states , anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect must report it. Michigan law requires certain individuals including school teachers, administrators, counselors and law enforcement to report such abuse. These professionals are known as mandated reporters. The Nassar-inspired legislation would tack sports coaches as well as athletic trainers, physical therapists and physical therapist assistants onto the list.

Rep. Klint Kesto, who spearheaded the House's passage of the Nassar bills, said he is unsure if he will support the Senate version.

"The whole point of this is to protect children from abuse and neglect," the Commerce Township Republican said. "I'm not sure they listened to all of the testimony and still think this could have unintended consequences."

The House yanked coaches out of its version amid pushback from experts criticizing the mandatory reporting reforms shepherded in during the legislative reckoning of Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky, who sexually abused 10 boys. They say the flood of new reports diverted attention from the most serious cases.

A state analysis conducted after Pennsylvania's expanded laws found a hefty increase in child abuse reports but not much sway in the rate of substantiated reports from 2014 to 2016. Moreover, child abuse deaths rose from 30 to 46.

"This legislation doesn't do anything to improve the safety of children but has the appearance that the Legislature has done something to address this problem," Frank Vandervort, a University of Michigan law professor who researches mandatory reporting laws, said. "There are much better ways of spending our money and energy."

In Michigan, about 15 percent of total child abuse reports last year were confirmed true by a Child Protective Services investigation, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Over two-thirds of all CPS cases came from mandated reporters.

The ranking Democrat on the House committee, Rep. Stephanie Chang of Detroit, said she supports the updated bills but wants them to be paired with sufficient funding and training. The Michigan DHHS, which is neutral on the mandated reporting proposals, has requested an extra $53 million to offset costs a previous version of the Nassar package would generate.

Another bill would task the department with training mandated reporters. Others aim to necessitate a second health professional be in the room when a procedure involving vaginal or anal penetration is performed on a minor, increase penalties in some child pornography cases and more. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign the package and has already received legislation to give child sexual abuse victims more time to sue.

"That's what happens in child sexual abuse: They do it in secrecy." Cathleen Palm, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Center for Children's Justice, said about Sandusky and Nassar. "If you're not training people but legally obligating them to make reports, then you're indirectly and unintentionally undercutting child protection."

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