The Firing Of Coach Paterno Raises Awareness Of The Obligation To Report Maltreatment Of Children In Minnesota

By Stewart C. Loper
November 2011

Paterno Ousted At Penn State

The firing on Wednesday of celebrated football coach Joe Paterno by the Penn State University Board of Trustees has aroused much emotion and created controversy over the justification for his termination. The Wall Street Journal reports that, "There were passionate arguments about the scandal," among the students on campus and off. Even classroom activities have been disrupted by students "shouting at each other." [3]

The Trustees' action in firing Paterno and University President Graham Spanier was occasioned by the indictment last weekend of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 21 counts of sexual abuse of children over a 15-year period. Sandusky was an assistant coach under Paterno from 1969 to 1999. The current Athletic Director and Vice-President for Finance and Business at the University have also been charged with lying to the grand jury and have left the University.

Paterno Was Fired For Not Doing Enough

So far as we know, Paterno's knowledge and involvement was limited to one incident in 2002. Then graduate assistant Mike McQueary reported to Paterno that he had observed conduct (allegedly of a sexual nature) by Sandusky involving a young boy in the shower at the Penn State football facility. [4] Apparently Paterno, in turn, reported the incident to Athletic Director Tim Curley as required by University policy, but neither McQueary nor Paterno reported the incident to police. Paterno is quoted as saying that he did what he was supposed to do, but now wishes that, "he had done more." [5] There is apparently no Pennsylvania law requiring a police report by McQueary or Paterno, but the University feels that Paterno's failure to bring the matter to the attention of the authorities was a serious error in judgment, and that the termination of his employment was necessary to protect the reputation of the institution.

The Policy In Minnesota

If a similar incident were known to, or suspected by a coach or other "professional" in Minnesota, such a person could face criminal penalties for failing to report the situation to police or the appropriate welfare authorities.

It is public policy in Minnesota to protect children from maltreatment of several varieties including: physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse; that instances of such maltreatment be reported promptly so that appropriate steps may be taken to ensure the safety of children in the home, school and community; and to promote early child protection, investigation, protective family support and the provision of family preservation services when there is found to be substantial child endangerment. Minn. Stat. § 626.556 Subd. 1.

Who Must Report Maltreatment Of Minors In Minnesota?

Certain people are required by Minnesota law, to report observed or suspected neglect or physical or sexual abuse of minors to appropriate authorities. Those required to report are professionals, or their "delegates" who are:

  • Practitioners and providers of the healing arts
  • Employees of social service organizations
  • Hospital administrators
  • Psychological or psychiatric caregivers
  • Child care workers
  • Educators
  • Correctional supervisors
  • Probation and correctional services workers
  • Law enforcement workers
  • Clergy (although clergy need not divulge otherwise privileged information)

Minn. Stat. § 626.556 Subd. 3 (a)(1), (2). The failure of those required to report neglect or abuse is a misdemeanor. Others may voluntarily report suspected maltreatment of children to the appropriate authorities. Minn. Stat. §626.556 Subd. 3(b). There is immunity from civil or criminal liability for those who make required or voluntary reports of maltreatment, so long as those reports are made in good faith and are not reckless or malicious. Minn. Stat. § 626.556 Subd. 3, 5.

What Sorts Of Conduct Must Be Reported?

The Minnesota statute governing maltreatment of minors describes conduct that amounts to "substantial child endangerment," and is therefore reportable under the statute including:

  • Egregious harm as defined in Minn. Stat. § 260C.007
  • Sexual abuse
  • Abandonment
  • Neglect
  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Assault
  • Solicitation, inducement and promotion of prostitution
  • Criminal sexual conduct under Minn. Stat. § 609.342-609.352
  • Solicitation of children to engage in sexual conduct pursuant to Minn. Stat. §609.377
  • Malicious punishment or neglect or endangerment under Minn. Stat. § 609.377-378
  • Use of a child in a sexual performance
  • Parental behavior, status or condition which mandates that the county attorney file a termination of parental rights petition under Minn. Stat §260C.301

Minn. Stat. § 626.556 Subd. 2(c). The foregoing is not meant to be an exhaustive list of conduct constituting abuse or neglect. There are more detailed definitions and descriptions of the conduct constituting maltreatment specified in the statute. Furthermore, it is not just current conduct that is required to be reported. Neglect or physical or sexual abuse that has occurred within the past three years is required to be reported when it comes to the attention of a professional who is required to report it. Minn. Stat § 626.665 Subd. 3. Suffice it to say that professionals required to report substantial child endangerment should be alert to that fact that the range and timing of conduct (either by commission or omission) that falls within the reporting requirement is broad. Professionals and their delegates may want to consider legal advice when considering whether observed conduct is covered under the statute.

To Whom Must Reports Of Maltreatment Minors Be Made?

The statute requires reports to the local welfare agency, the agency responsible for assessing or investigating the report, the police department or the county sheriff, depending on the conduct or conditions that are observed by the professional. Minn. Stat. § 626.556 Subd. 3(d). Other parts of the statute make it more clear which agency is the proper recipient of reports of specific conditions or observation.

Awareness And Action Are Important

If you are a teacher, a coach, a health care provider or other professional who regularly works with or furnishes instruction to children, it is important to be alert to the signs of abuse or neglect, and when you observe those signs, to act promptly to notify the appropriate authorities of the situation you have identified, lest you be charged with a violation of the statute. Minn. Stat. § 626.556 Subd. 6. [6] Remember that your are protected from civil and criminal liability for making a good faith report to the appropriate authorities when you suspect a child with whom you have contact is or has suffered from neglect or abuse. Consider reporting the conduct or condition that makes you suspect child abuse or neglect as soon as you can describe with particularity the reasons you believe that abuse or neglect may exist or have taken place.


Notes

[1] Stewart Loper is an attorney practicing in the areas of small business representation, contracts, real estate and estate planning. He is a graduate of Macalester College, B.A. 1970 and the William Mitchell College of Law, J.D. 1974. He maintains an office in Bloomington.

[2] The Wall Street Journal, http://wsj.com/article_email/SB100014240552970204358004577027923277309662...11/10/2011.

[3] Id.

[4] Although Sandusky left his position as assistant coach of the football team in 1999, he continued to use University football facilities for the "Second Mile" program for disadvantaged youth, which he founded and ran.

[5] Id.

[6] Some have argued that coaches are not bound by the mandatory reporting requirements, since the term "coach" does not specifically appear in Subd. 3 of the statute. But coaches are frequently employed by educational institutions, and regardless of their employment status, teach and instruct their charges in skills and techniques to improve their athletic performance, so as to fall within the purview of "educators," as defined by Minn. Stat. Sec. 626.556 Subd. 3(a)(1).