BOSTON — Massachusetts has some of the nation's toughest laws on mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Teachers, doctors, nurses and child-care workers are threatened with fines and other penalties for failing to report allegations.
But advocates for victims of sexual abuse say loopholes in the law are allowing predators to go undetected.
For one, sexual relations between educators and students go unreported, especially in private schools, where abusers begin "grooming" their victims, advocates say. Schools also "pass the trash" by signing non-disclosure agreements with abusers, allowing them to conceal histories of misconduct.
"We know that sexual abusers are like moths to the porch-light," said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, or MassKids, which is pushing for tougher reporting rules. "They hover around places like schools where they know they can find kids."
Advocates want lawmakers to take up a bill filed by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, that seeks to expand the list of those required to report suspected abuse to include youth sports organizations, volunteer coaches, tutors and school contractors, require them to undergo annual training to detect and report abuse, and impose tougher criminal penalties for abusers.
"This is very personal for me because I've walked in those shoes," said Lovely, who was sexually abused as a 6-year-old by a maternal uncle and has pushed for the changes for the past two legislative sessions. "The focus of this effort is squarely on prevention. We want to prevent sexual abuse from happening."
Lovely's proposal would increase the age of sexual consent in schools from 16 to 19, and up to 22 for developmentally disabled students. This would not affect the age of consent outside a school setting, which would remain 16.
Schools would also be banned from signing non-disclosure agreements that shield allegations of sexual abuse against teachers and other employees.
"They sign these agreements and then move them along to the next school system, and it repeats," said Lovely. "We want to make sure that doesn't happen."
Massachusetts in recent years has expanded the list of individuals who must report suspected abuse. The state is also one of six that doesn't require physical evidence or corroborating reports to launch an investigation of abuse.
Advocates want the state to focus more on educating those who work around kids to notice signs of a possible sexual predator.
"We've a whole bunch of people out there who are not safe to be around kids, but are not on the sex offender registry and have not been called out before, so we need to find ways to address those risks," said Jenny Coleman, director of the Northampton-based advocacy group Stop It Now, which operates a hotline.
Forty-eight states require at least some professionals to immediately report knowledge or suspicion of child sexual abuse to some authority, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, at least 18 have laws requiring mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse by all adults.
Advocates say tougher reporting requirements mean more eyes are watching. They cite a recent spike of reported child abuse and neglect allegations.
From 2012 to 2016, cases of reported child abuse in Massachusetts increased 67 percent to 32,093, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's latest report on child maltreatment.
In 2016, the state's rate of 23.3 victims per 1,000 children was more than double the national average.
Roughly 95 percent of the 32,000 reported abuse cases in the report dealt with claims neglect, while 2.4 percent involved sexual abuse.
Bernier points out that the federal data only scratch the surface, because an estimated 90 percent of child abuse goes unreported.
"There tends to be this focus on the small number of sex offenders who end up in prison, put on the registry and then released," she said. "We're focused on the majority who are under the radar, living in communities and posing a risk to children."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.