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Penn State lesson: what to do if you suspect sexual abuse of a child

Whether or not Mike McQueary told police of the alleged sexual assault of a young boy, the Penn State scandal raises the issue of how to handle such cases. Every US state has its own laws.

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In this screen grab provided by CBS, former Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary, left, speaks to CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian, Tuesday at an unknown location. McQueary is cited by a grand jury report as witnessing Jerry Sandusky allegedly sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State locker room.

CBS/AP

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Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary’s assertion, now disputed by police, that he talked to the police after the alleged sexual assault of a young boy by former coach Jerry Sandusky raises the important question: What is the right way to handle such cases?

It turns out that every state in the nation has its own specific laws on reporting the sexual abuse of a child. If there is any unifying theme, it is that the person who has “reasonable cause” to believe a child has been abused must notify law enforcement officials and child welfare agencies. People who work in certain fields or at certain institutions have to notify their boss, who is then required to report the abuse, usually within 48 hours.

“Anybody may report it,” says Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. “States want people who are in a position to become aware of child sexual abuse to report” their allegation.

Almost every state also lists specific professions, especially those licensed by the state, that are expressly required to notify both the police and child welfare agencies.

For example, the state of Vermont lists 34 different professions or jobs in which instances of child abuse or neglect must be reported within 24 hours. This includes such professions as doctors, dentists, nurses, teachers, librarians, social workers, camp counselors, and clergy.

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