Miami, FL December 19, 2011 – The arrest of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on more than 40 counts of child sexual abuse — involving 10 alleged victims — hasn’t just sent shockwaves through the country, but provided a wake-up call, says Miami injury lawyer and crime victim advocate Philip M. Gerson. Indeed, says the senior partner of Gerson & Schwartz, the Penn State case highlights how woefully ineffective and inconsistent reporting requirements for suspected child sex crimes are — and how both legislation and cooperation between the public and the police need to be improved.
“Child sex abuse is horrific in all cases, but what is striking about the Sandusky allegations is that there seemed to be a number of people who knew what was going on, or at least had good reason to suspect criminal behavior, yet may not have promptly reported that activity to police,” says Gerson, a veteran trial lawyer who has represented injury and sex abuse victims for more than 40 years. “Unfortunately, while we like to think that people will do the right thing in cases like this, they don’t always do so. And that makes reporting requirements, with very real penalties for not reporting, essential.”
While many states do require citizens to report suspected abuse, there is currently no uniform standard, and the details on who must make a report, and when they must do so, can vary greatly from one jurisdiction to another. “In Florida, if a child is brought into a hospital emergency room and there are injuries consistent with possible abuse, medical staff have a statutory duty to report that to authorities,” says Gerson. “Yet a neighbor who sees something doesn’t have a duty to report. In New Jersey, on the other hand, a neighbor is required to report what he or she saw. Having different rules in different states not only complicates and confuses things, but it ultimately means that many cases of abuse continue unhindered. And children that have already been harmed are harmed more — and worse.”
Gerson, a board member of the National Center for Victims of Crime, the nation’s leading resource and advocacy organization for crime victims, is calling for a nationwide, uniform standard for reporting — with criminal penalties for those who fail in their duty. But he’s not stopping there.
“A uniform standard is important, but it’s just the first step,” the Miami injury lawyer says. “What we really need is greater cooperation between the public and the police, much like what we saw after 9/11, when ordinary citizens would see a suspicious package on a bus or train and alert law enforcement. No law can create this sort of collaborative environment, but as cases like Penn State get attention and scrutiny, the public is going to say ‘enough.’ They’re going to come together and fight back — it’s the one hopeful sign in an utterly horrific situation.”
With more reporting, says Gerson, serial abuse could be stopped in its tracks. “One constant in the 42 years I have been representing crime victims is that predators don’t just stop being predators. Many of these cases involve multiple victims. By the time I get involved, the abuse has already happened for them. I’m reaching out to lawmakers because I want them to take the steps that can prevent these crimes, to make sure police are able to take action as soon as possible, before there are dozens of victims.”
Uniform reporting requirements are just one way in which legislatures can spur justice along. Gerson is also calling for the elimination of statutes of limitations in child sex abuse cases — a call echoed by the National Center for Victims of Crime and a growing number of state legislators. These statutes, which limit the amount of time in which civil and criminal cases can be brought, have hindered legal action in instances where abuse went unreported for many years.
“These cases aren’t the same as someone stealing your iPod, where you think nothing of reporting the crime,” says Gerson. “Sexual abuse is traumatic, and many victims are simply unable to talk about it for a very long time. When they can, they should be able to seek justice, and hold their abusers accountable. The law needs to facilitate that — not prohibit it.”
About Gerson & Schwartz P.A.
Founded in 1970 by Miami personal injury lawyer Philip M. Gerson, the law firm of Gerson & Schwartz, P.A., has spent the past four decades protecting, and vindicating, the rights of individuals who have suffered serious harm — from automobile accidents to medical malpractice to cruise ship injuries. In the process, the firm has become recognized as “Top Lawyers” by the South Florida Business Review, and recognized widely for its work with public interest groups like the International Cruise Victims Association and the National Center for Victims of Crime. To learn more about the trial lawyers of Gerson & Schwartz, visit www.injuryattorneyfla.com.