A bill aimed at expanding child-safety protections against molesters and other abusers took a small but significant step forward Wednesday.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, would add coaches, camp counselors, Scout leaders, firefighters, school and college administrators, as well as “clerical or nonclerical religious counselors” to those who are required by law to report cases of suspected child abuse or neglect.
A “mandated reporter” is a person who the law requires to report suspected abuse to either law enforcement or the S.C. Department of Social Services. Already, nurses, doctors, members of the clergy, teachers, principals, mental health professionals, social workers and judges are required to report suspected abuse.
Bannister, chair of the subcommittee that on Wednesday sent the bill to the full House Judiciary Committee, told his panel that he was proposing the change because there is a growing religious group in Greenville whose members “are holding themselves out as counselors” but who are not part of any organized church.
“I’m trying to close the loophole that allows somebody ... to offer religious counseling when they have no training, they are not clergy, they’re not counselors,” Bannister said.
State Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, asked Bannister if his proposal might keep volunteers from offering to work with youth at churches or other places.
Bannister told Caskey he would favor child safety over the scruples of a, hopefully, limited number of people who won’t volunteer because they prefer to keep silent about suspected child abuse rather than report such cases.
Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood, told Bannister the language about church volunteers might be too broad, since all members of churches might counsel each other. That would mean all members of a church might be considered mandatory reporters, he said.
McCravy stressed that more study was needed on the idea of including voluntary church members.However, he joined the other four subcommittee members to forward Bannister’s bill to the full Judiciary Committee.
Maggie Cash, executive director of the S.C. Children’s Hospital Collaborative, which is involved in child-abuse detection initiatives, told Bannister’s panel that her group “absolutely” supports his proposal.
Bannister’s bill originally was aimed only at religious counselors. But he added the broader language to include coaches, Boy Scout leaders and others, borrowing language from another bill, sponsored by state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston.
Mandatory reporters who report a suspected child abuse or neglect case to law enforcement or Social Services in good faith are shielded from lawsuits if their report turns out to be unfounded. However, mandatory reporters who fail to report child-abuse cases are subject to being fined $500 or sentenced to six months in jail.
Advocates of the Bannister and McCoy bills say they are motivated by the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, where allegations of abuse by the assistant coach Jerry Sandusky reportedly were told to the university officials. When those officials took no action, the abuse continued.
In South Carolina, leaders of The Citadel publicly apologized in 2011 for not reporting to police allegations of child sex abuse against a summer camp counselor. That counselor turned out to be a serial child molester.
(Note: This story has been corrected to note that Rep. McCravy voted with the majority to forward the bill on to the full Judiciary Committee.)