(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) — The Penn State scandal helped shape a new Florida sexual abuse reporting law that has been called the toughest in the nation, holding universities and individuals financially and criminally liable for failure to report suspected abuse.
Under the law, which went into effect Oct. 1, colleges and universities that “knowingly and willfully” fail to report known or suspected child abuse or prevent another person from doing so will be slapped with a $1 million fine for each failure.
“We learned we didn’t want to take a chance on [them],” said Ron Book, president of Lauren’s Kids, a nonprofit that helped spearhead the legislation.
That began with mandating that schools report all allegations, not just conduct their own investigations. Book pointed to allegations from Penn State, Syracuse University and The Citadel that were known to administrators but not reported to authorities.
“What we learned after the Sandusky indictment was even though we prided ourselves as being a true mandatory reporting state, we found we weren’t,” Book said.
Aside from the university financial penalties, Book and his daughter, Lauren, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, also helped closed loopholes in the legislation for individual reporting.
“Applying Penn State to the old Florida law, would Mike McQueary [have] had to report what he saw?” Book said, referring to the former Penn State assistant coach who witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the school’s showers.
“The answer was he would not have.”
Previously, a person who called the state abuse hotline to report a suspected incident involving a child would have been asked to call law enforcement if the suspected predator was not a care taker or parent of the child, Book said.
“What we’ve learned is it’s hard enough to get a victim or observer to call once,” he said.
Under the new law, witnesses, like McQueary, or people who suspect abuse, are required to call a centralized hotline run by the Florida Department of Children and Families or face third-degree felony charges and a $5,000 fine.
Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, said the stricter reporting law won’t necessarily reduce the number of cases of abuse.
“Bad people are going to do bad things,” she said, “but I think we can reduce it and we can make it very clear to every citizen that we’re all responsible for the welfare of our children.”
The Florida Department of Children and Families reported a 25 percent increase in calls since the law went into effect on Oct. 1.
While other states have mandatory reporting laws, there are still loopholes, Book said.
He’d like to see the Florida law he helped pass be used as a model for other states, especially for how they handle situations at colleges and universities.
“If you don’t back it up with financial and criminal penalties, you’ve done nothing and we’ve gotten nothing out of Sandusky,” he said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Chuck Johnston, CNN Newswire