Wesleyan Students Help Shape a Child Abuse Law
Friday, April 13th, 2012
Story used with permission from The Charleston Gazette
By Eric Eyre
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Professor Robert Rupp’s political science students at West Virginia Wesleyan College didn’t bury their heads in textbooks this semester.
They were helping to write a new law designed to protect children from sexual abuse.
On Thursday, Wesleyan students traveled from Buckhannon to the state Capitol, where they watched Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin sign legislation that strengthens West Virginia’s child sexual abuse reporting requirements.
“They brought this to our attention, did a lot of the research and made specific suggestions,” said state Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, who helped sponsor the legislation.
The Penn State University child abuse scandal sparked Rupp and his students to suggest a change to West Virginia’s outdated child abuse reporting law, which was written in 1931 and similar to Pennsylvania’s.
The new law requires anyone 18 or older who witnesses or suspects child abuse to report the incident to West Virginia State Police within 48 hours. State Police must subsequently report the allegations to the state Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).
“This law requires you to go directly to the police,” said Jessicah Cross, a student in Rupp’s class. “There’s no middle man.”
Former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, who died in January of lung cancer, passed along a report about alleged child sexual abuse by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky to the university’s athletic director in 2002. Pennsylvania authorities have said Sandusky could have been stopped earlier if Paterno and others had gone directly to the police.
West Virginia’s new reporting law also adds coaches, camp counselors and administrators, and commercial film and photographic print processors to the list of occupations mandated to report suspected child abuse or neglect.
During the semester, Foster worked closely with Rupp and his students to change the law. Students first researched child abuse reporting requirements in other states, and in Ireland and Australia. Wesleyan students also had a hand in helping Foster draft the bill.
“We looked at other states, what they were passing and how that compared to our bill,” said Jordan Smith, a freshman in Rupp’s class. “If legislators had a question, we would do the research and get them an answer.”
Jordan Huffman, a Wesleyan senior, worked as a Herndon Fellowship intern at the state Capitol during the past legislative session.
Huffman attended legislative committee meetings and helped revise the child abuse reporting bill during the session.
“I got to follow that legislation all the way through,” Herndon said. “I got a different perspective on the political reality.”
The child sex abuse reporting bill hit several snags during the session.
Students and lawmakers suggested a change that would require anyone — not just the numerous occupations listed in the bill — to report child abuse and neglect.
“Under West Virginia’s law, if you’re a grandparent, and your granddaughter is getting abused, you’re not legally required to tell,” Cross said. “We wanted it to be for everyone.”
Wesleyan students also suggested a revision that would require anyone to report all cases of child abuse and neglect — not just cases of sexual abuse.
Delaware and 17 other states have the wider reporting requirement.
Officials with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources argued that the broader notification rules would trigger a flood of reports — including false reports — to authorities.
Although Wesleyan students didn’t get everything they wanted in the bill, they were pleased with the outcome. “It was definitely a step in the right direction,” Smith said.
On Thursday, Wesleyan students stood by Tomblin as he signed the legislation (SB 161) into law. Foster and others remarked that West Virginia might not have adopted the tougher law, if not for Wesleyan students and their dogged work on the bill during the legislative session.
“They’re not just studying how the legislative process works, they’re actually doing it,” Rupp said. “The see how the law can be shaped. They’re learning things far beyond the textbook.”
Also Thursday, Tomblin signed a bill that requires hotels and other facilities to install carbon monoxide detectors.
In January, Bill Moran, a Rhode Island construction worker, died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the Holiday Inn Express in South Charleston. Sixteen additional hotel guests were hospitalized. An investigation found that carbon monoxide leaked into Moran’s room from a faulty pool heater.
Moran’s sister and nephew attended Thursday’s bill signing. Moran’s widow is suing the hotel chain.