By Brad TenBrook and Isabel Ranney
Originally Published 06/24/21 for the Maricopa County Bar Association.
After Jerry Sandusky’s arrest for child sex abuse in 2011, states across the United States began paying attention. Sandusky was a well-respected assistant football coach at Penn State and the founder of a non-profit charity dedicated to helping at-risk youth . At the same time, he was molesting boys, some of which occurred in the Penn State football locker rooms. Even worse, some people knew what Sandusky was doing and did nothing to stop him.
To prevent situations like Sandusky’s from occurring, all states have mandatory reporting statutes that require certain groups of individuals to report when they suspect or have reason to believe that a child has been abused or neglected. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (CAPTA) requires states to have mandatory reporting statutes to receive federal funding . To be compliant under CAPTA, all states must offer some form of immunity from liability for good faith reporters. Each state’s reporting statutes are different, with some states requiring only certain groups to report and others requiring any adult to report. In Arizona, mandatory reporters include physicians, physician assistants, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors, teachers, law enforcement, and other professionals who have frequent contact with children, like school psychologists. Anyone responsible for the care and control of a minor must also report suspected abuse, including parents, stepparents, and some others. A.R.S. § 13-3620.
Mandatory reporting statutes were in the news in 2002, when the Boston Globe exposed the rampant abuse in the Catholic Church and that the Church was aware of the abuse but had been covering it up for decades . This abuse was widespread—even reaching as far as Tucson, Arizona.
The national dialogue did not really gain momentum until Sandusky was arrested. Sandusky’s case placed state mandatory reporting statutes in the national spotlight and caused states to re-examine their laws. State responses varied. Some states expanded their list of mandated reporters or increased their mandatory reporting training. In Arizona, the University of Arizona now requires teacher candidates to complete a Mandatory Reporting workshop before they can work in the field .
Clearly, in Sandusky’s case, the mandatory reporting statutes in Pennsylvania were not an effective deterrent for those aware of Sandusky’s abuse or who refused to investigate the allegations. It was not until 2017 that Graham Spanier, the former president of Penn State, was charged with a misdemeanor for endangering the welfare of a child for his failure to report a 2001 allegation that Sandusky was molesting young boys. On May 26, 2021 CNN reported that Spanier starts his two-month jail sentence in June 2021 .
Following Sandusky, Pennsylvania added a felony charge for willfully failing to report known child abuse in 2014. Some states followed suit by bolstering their legal penalties . In two states, Arizona and Minnesota, failure to report severe child abuse or neglect upgrades a misdemeanor to a felony. Florida had the strictest response, making failure to report a felony and penalizing universities with a $1,000,000 fine and a two-year denial of state funding for failing to report . Maryland and Wyoming have no criminal penalty for failure to report.
Arizona did not significantly alter its mandatory reporting statute, A.R.S. § 13-3620, following the Sandusky investigation. The statute requires physicians, nurses, physician assistants, teachers, and others to report suspected child abuse. Members of the general public are not mandatory reporters in Arizona unless they are in direct control of the child, and physicians who provide sex offender treatment that is not court-ordered do not need to report if they believe withholding is necessary to accomplish the purposes of treatment. A.R.S. § 13-3620(C). The penalty for a failure to report is a misdemeanor charge unless the abuse is an enumerated severe “reportable offense,” such as child sex trafficking or incest, in which case failure to report is a class six felony. A.R.S. § 13-3620(O).
But have things really changed in the ten years since Sandusky?
Despite the statutory penalties in Arizona, prosecutions are uncommon. There is currently a trial court case pending in Cochise County regarding the failure of Latter-Day Saints Bishops in Bisbee, Arizona to report known child sex abuse. Church officials are mandatory reporters in Arizona. Examples of such cases are few and far between, however, and failure to report is often resolved as part of dependency proceedings rather than criminal prosecutions.
Often, the collateral effects of a misdemeanor charge for a failure to report are worse than the criminal charge itself. After a mandatory reporter is charged, they must report to their professional board—e.g., the Arizona State Board of Nursing—and face discipline, or their license may be revoked. Nonetheless, because it is uncommon for a mandatory reporter to be charged with failure to report, § 13-3620 can be described as only moderately effective.
Post-Sandusky, mandatory reporting statutes continue to not be aggressively enforced, which begs the question: is there a benefit to expanding Arizona’s mandatory reporting statute? For example, should we require neighbors who see or hear a child being abused next door to report?
Universal Mandatory Reporting (UMR) statutes are not the majority. Only 18 states require the public to report suspected or known child abuse and neglect. According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health in 2017, although nonprofessionals are more likely to report in UMR states, the rates of total and confirmed abuse reports are relatively the same as in non-UMR states . Therefore, UMR does not seem to increase the likelihood of reporting any more than reporting mandates aimed only at certain professional groups likely to encounter children in their practices.
All of these concerns relate back to policy decisions made by the legislature. State agencies and law enforcement pursue failure to report allegations in some contexts, like dependency and severance actions against parents. However, unless resources are devoted to expanding § 13-3620 investigations and enforcement, the statute will likely remain more of an academic talking point than a deterrent to remaining silent when a child is imperiled.
 42 U.S.C. §§5101-5106.
 23 PA Cons Stat § 6319.
 Fla. Stat. § 39.205(3).
Brad TenBrook is a former Assistant Attorney General who represented DCS. He now focuses on helping families navigate the DCS world of investigations and dependencies at Woodnick Law.
Isabel Ranney is currently working at Woodnick Law as a law clerk and is in her second year of law school at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.