LANSING, Mich. — Michigan is looking to shore up its law that requires certain people to report suspected child sexual abuse to authorities to address gaps that were exposed after disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar admitted to sexually assaulting female athletes.
Nassar’s victims are spearheading the initiative, saying he could have been stopped decades ago if coaches, athletic trainers or others at Michigan State University had listened to them. More than 250 women and girls have said the now-imprisoned Nassar molested them with his ungloved hands under the guise of medical treatment.
No one has faced charges yet for not reporting the abuse, but multiple investigations are underway into Michigan State’s handling of complaints.
Like all other states, Michigan requires health providers, psychologists, teachers, police, clergy and others to report suspected child abuse or neglect to authorities. A bill up for approval by the state Senate would add college employees and youth sports coaches, trainers and volunteers.
Additional legislation would increase potential punishments. Paid professionals who willfully do not report suspected abuse or neglect could face a felony charge and up to two years in prison, up from what is now a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum 93 days in jail.
“It puts stronger incentives in place to properly motivate adults to respond to disclosures of sexual assaults,” said Rachael Denhollander, who was 15 when Nassar assaulted her in his campus office in 2000. “As much as it is difficult and as much as we don’t want to recognize this fact, there are adults who will not be motivated by an ethical, moral code to report sexual assault of children.”
Eleven other states already require college employees to report abuse. Eighteen more require anyone aware of suspected abuse or neglect to report it, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In five states, all youth coaches — not just those who are school employees — are mandatory reporters.
Michigan isn’t the only state to explore changes. Illinois is looking to increase the punishment for not reporting abuse and may require coaches and other athletic workers to undergo training. Legislation in Georgia would give victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue for damages — something Michigan is also considering.
Michigan’s legislation would address ambiguity surrounding who must report abuse. Nassar’s accusers contend in a lawsuit that four current or former Michigan employees they told — including ex- gymnastics head coach Kathie Klages, Nassar’s physician supervisors and a psychology professor who saw one victim through his separate private practice — were mandated reporters already.
The bill would cover college workers along with coaches, assistant coaches and trainers involved in youth sports that are both affiliated and unaffiliated with schools and universities, such as Twistars, a Lansing-area gymnastics club where Nassar molested athletes.
“Enablers need to be held accountable,” said Larissa Boyce, who said she was 16 when she complained about Nassar to Klages in 1997, while she was training with the Spartan youth gymnastics team.
Boyce said Klages dissuaded her from taking it further despite confirming that a 14-year-old girl had received similar “treatments.” Klages has denied that anyone reported Nassar to her.
While the legislation has bipartisan support, it has some opponents.
The American Civil Liberties Association of Michigan says volunteer coaches, who can include high school students and young adults, do not get training they would need to recognize signs of abuse or neglect. Kimberly Buddin, the group’s policy council, also said harsher criminal penalties could lead to unintended consequences in instances where no abuse has occurred.
“We don’t want to create a culture where people are just reporting things that don’t need to be reported because they’re afraid of going to jail,” Buddin said.
But Republican Sen. Margaret O’Brien, the main bill sponsor, said not much is asked of mandatory reporters.
“This is not a difficult thing to do. All you have to state is the people involved and what information you were given,” she said. “You don’t have to investigate. Mandated reporters are not judge and jury.”