Legislation sponsored by Sen. Maryellen Goodwin and Rep. Marvin L. Abney to close a loophole in abuse reporting laws to ensure that schools report allegations of sexual abuse of children to the Department of Children, Youth and Families has been signed into law.

The legislation (2016-S 2947aa, 2016-H 8335) is intended to address a situation that came to light amid allegations of abuse over the course of decades at St. George’s School in Middletown. The alleged abuse was not reported to authorities, and there was no law requiring the school to do so.

While the state “mandatory reporting” law says that anyone who believes a child is being abused by a parent, guardian or DCYF-licensed child care program must report the suspected abuse to DCYF, it doesn’t say anything about situations when the abuse is at the hands of someone other than a parent, guardian or licensed program provider — such as a teacher.

The new law adds educational institutions to the mandatory reporting requirements, so that if anyone has knowledge or suspicion of sexual abuse of a child by an employee, agent, contractor or volunteer at a school they are legally required to report that alleged abuse within 24 hours to DCYF, which would conduct its own investigation in addition to immediately notifying state and local police. DCYF would then refer victims to the appropriate services. If DCYF substantiates the report, it would also be responsible for notifying the Department of Education, the school, the parents or guardians of the alleged victim and the suspected abuser.

The law applies to public and private schools, including boarding schools and home schooling programs.

The sponsors said they hope to stop sexual abuse of children from going unreported, leaving children to suffer in silence, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

“Children who have been sexually abused deserve both justice and the appropriate help. When their abuse goes unreported, they are left with physical and psychological damage that may go completely untreated, causing them a lifetime of trauma and suffering, destroying their lives from childhood though adulthood. They need to be rescued and connected with help,” said Senator Goodwin (D-Dist. 1, Providence). “Additionally, not only do their abusers deserve to be brought to justice, but there needs to be a public record of their crimes against children. We’ve seen the paths of ruined lives left in the wake of abusers who have been able to quietly move from one institution to another without anyone there knowing of their history, each time getting access to new victims. Mandatory reporting requirements must apply to schools to stop that cycle.”

Said Representative Abney (D-Dist. 73, Newport, Middletown), “In no case should anyone be allowed to brush sexual abuse of children under the rug. With this legislation, we’re closing a loophole so that no one should ever be able to cover up such grave and damaging abuse of innocent children in Rhode Island again. Of course anyone with knowledge of sexual abuse has a duty to report it to the proper authorities, and now our laws will leave no ambiguity or room for excuses. May this change send a very clear message that there is no hiding such egregious crimes against children in our state, and those who commit them will be reported, prosecuted and punished.”

The bill was backed by Day One, which works to reduce the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence as well as to support and advocate for those affected by it.

“This critical legislation is needed in order to ensure that all children are protected, and that suspected offenders in all educational settings are immediately investigated. I applaud the [Assembly] for recognizing the confusion in interpretation of the current statute, and promptly addressing it. This new statute will provide our children with much needed protection, as well as hold offenders accountable,” said Day One Executive Director Peg Langhammer.

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