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Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery. (File photo)

Child advocates, doctors battle over Md. abuse-reporting legislation

ANNAPOLIS – Child advocates opposed doctors and psychologists Thursday over legislation that would require agencies investigating potential child abuse or neglect to file a complaint with a licensing board when they have “substantial grounds to believe” that a health-care provider, police officer or teacher “knowingly failed” to report the suspected abuse or neglect.

The legislation, House Bill 245, follows on a Maryland law requiring providers, officers and teachers to report instances of suspected child abuse. Failure to report carries no criminal sanctions, but licensing boards are permitted to take action against those who fail to comply with their reporting obligation.

Child advocates praised the bill as ensuring that boards are notified when a licensee is suspected of having failed to meet their reporting obligations under the law.

“It is by virtue of their professions that these individuals have a higher duty to report child abuse and neglect, and at a minimum, their licensing boards should be notified when they fail to do so,”

the Coalition to Protect Maryland’s Children stated in written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

But doctors and psychologists told the House committee the bill could lead to complaints being filed against them whenever abuse or neglect is a mere possibility.

The Maryland State Medical Society, or MedChi, said in written testimony that current law ensures doctors report instances of suspected child abuse without the need to be overseen “by already overworked and understaffed” child-protective agencies.

“Physicians understand the need to report and act upon suspected child abuse and are already subject to professional discipline including revocation or suspension of their license for knowingly failing to report suspected child abuse,” MedChi stated. “Our concern is that, due to the lack of resources, an agency may file complaints on physicians and other providers simply based on information that they treated a patient who was suspected to have been abused. That complaint could tarnish the record of a provider and require them to defend the complaint, however meritless it may be.”

New language

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and the bill’s chief sponsor, said the doctors’ concern about meritless complaints is assuaged by the measure’s requirement that the grounds must be “substantial” for believing not just that the professional failed to report abuse but that the failure was “knowing.”

Neither the “substantial” nor “knowing” provisions were included in similar legislation that failed in the legislature last year.

“These changes make it clear that the belief that there was a failure to report must carry significant weight,” Dumais told the committee on which she serves as vice chair. “It is important to note that this legislation does not change penalties or alter how a worker would be disciplined. The bill simply requires information concerning an employee’s failure to report abuse be shared with the appropriate [licensing] entity.”

Lisae C. Jordan of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault told the committee that the bill ensures the licensing boards are notified of a licensee’s reporting failure and “can fashion the appropriate response.”

“We should support the boards in their oversight by ensuring they have information about failure to report child abuse and neglect,” said Jordan, the coalition’s executive director and counsel. “In turn, this will lead to better understanding of reporting laws and greater protection for victims of child sexual abuse and other child maltreatment.”

HB 245 also has the support of the Maryland Nurses Association and the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, whose members are subject to the statutory requirement that they report instances of suspected child abuse or neglect

The Maryland Psychological Association, which represents psychologists, lauded the legislation’s goal of protecting children but called the measure unnecessary.

“Agencies are already authorized to file a complaint with the appropriate licensing board, if a health care provider (or other person required to file a report) has knowingly failed to report suspected abuse or neglect,” the association stated in written testimony to the committee. “This is inherent in the investigatory responsibility of the agencies.”

HB 245 has been cross-filed in the Senate. Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, is the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 310.