Bills could make failure to report child abuse a felony

Two bills were introduced at the state Legislature that would boost the penalty for professionals who fail to report suspected child abuse or neglect as required by law.

Senate Bill 2477 and its identical companion measure, House Bill 2429, would make nonreporting by those required to do so a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The offense currently is a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

ADVERTISING

The Senate bill was introduced by Sens. Maile Shimabukuro and Michelle Kidani, and Big Island Sen. Lorraine Inouye. Others listed on the bill include Big Island Sen. Kai Kahele and Oahu Sens. Michelle Stanley Chang and Brickwood Galuteria.

“We need to increase the penalties, as far as I’m concerned,” Inouye said. “You see in the body of the bill all the cases that were reported in 2015. And I’m sure that by now, the numbers have gone up.”

The House version was introduced by Reps. Linda Ichiyama, Della Au Belatti, Bert Kobayashi, Lei Learmont, Lauren Matsumoto, John Mizuno and Gregg Takayama, all of Oahu, and Maui Reps. Angus McKelvey and Kyle Yamashita.

A 2015 report by the Department of Human Services said 3,747 reports were made regarding child abuse in Hawaii, according to the measure. The bill states that 2,813 of those reports were made by individuals required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect, which include health care professionals, public or private school employees, registered child care providers or foster parents, law enforcement officers, medical examiners and employees of any public or private agency providing recreational or sports activities.

It’s estimated that for every instance of reported child abuse, two cases go unreported in the U.S., according to the bill.

The measure also referred to the current civil suit filed by 34 former Kamehameha Schools students who were sexually abused over a period of almost three decades by Dr. Robert Browne. Browne, a serial pedophile who shot himself to death in 1991, was the chief of psychiatry at the then-St. Francis Hospital in Honolulu. Between 1958 and 1985, Kamehameha middle school and high school boys were referred to Browne for therapy.

Both bills passed first reading by the respective full chambers. The House version was referred to the Judiciary and Health and Human Services committees, while the Senate measure was referred to the Human Services and Judiciary Committees.

Senate Human Services Chairman Josh Green, a Kona Democrat and emergency room physician, scheduled a hearing for 3:45 p.m. Monday on the legislation.

“I support the concept of making these penalties stronger. I’ve witnessed too many tragedies over the years as a doc or senator, so I want us to step up our game as a state,” Green said.

No House committee hearings had been scheduled as of press time Thursday.

Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said he supports the intent of the bill, but is concerned about potential felony charges for nonreporting of relatively minor abuse cases.

“You can have a case where the suspected abuse is not criminal and now, not reporting is a felony,” Roth said. “You may have a crime that’s a misdemeanor or a petty misdemeanor if someone does it. But someone who doesn’t report it? You’re treating them more harshly than the person whose doing the abuse.

“Even the noncriminal neglect, you’re treating (the nonreporter) more harshly. On the other hand, in some cases, especially sex assault, absolutely the penalty for not reporting should be harsher.

“The way the bill is written, I can see a lot of issues that can arise,” Roth added. “By all means, we want to protect our kids, but in some cases the penalties may be a bit too harsh for the incidences we’re talking about here.”

Green said changing the law might necessitate additional training for mandated reporters.

“You know, there’s always more that people can learn, and the whole licensing process in Hawaii has been somewhat lax,” he said. “… But anyone who’s going to be in the position of taking care of somebody — whether it’s a child or a senior or a disabled individual — the onus is on them to know as much as possible about how to make things safe and what the law is.

ADVERTISING

“I am encouraged that almost all caregivers do a great job, but you’ve always got to watch out for the worst case scenarios.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.