Bills could make failure to report child abuse a felony

HILO — Two bills were introduced at the state Legislature that would boost the penalty for professionals who fail to report suspected child abuse or neglect as required by law.

Senate Bill 2477 and its identical companion measure, House Bill 2429, would make nonreporting by those required to do so a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The offense currently is a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

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The Senate bill was introduced by Sens. Maile Shimabukuro and Michelle Kidani, and Big Island Sen. Lorraine Inouye. Others listed on the bill include Big Island Sen. Kai Kahele and Oahu Sens. Michelle Stanley Chang and Brickwood Galuteria.

“We need to increase the penalties, as far as I’m concerned,” Inouye said. “You see in the body of the bill all the cases that were reported in 2015. And I’m sure that by now, the numbers have gone up.”

The House version was introduced by Reps. Linda Ichiyama, Della Au Belatti, Bert Kobayashi, Lei Learmont, Lauren Matsumoto, John Mizuno and Gregg Takayama, all of Oahu, and Maui Reps. Angus McKelvey and Kyle Yamashita.

A 2015 report by the Department of Human Services said 3,747 reports were made regarding child abuse in Hawaii, according to the measure. The bill states that 2,813 of those reports were made by individuals required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect, which include health care professionals, public or private school employees, registered child care providers or foster parents, law enforcement officers, medical examiners and employees of any public or private agency providing recreational or sports activities.

It’s estimated that for every instance of reported child abuse, two cases go unreported in the U.S., according to the bill.

The measure also referred to the current civil suit filed by 34 former Kamehameha Schools students who were sexually abused over a period of almost three decades by Dr. Robert Browne. Browne, a serial pedophile who shot himself to death in 1991, was the chief of psychiatry at the then-St. Francis Hospital in Honolulu. Between 1958 and 1985, Kamehameha middle school and high school boys were referred to Browne for therapy.

Both bills passed first reading by the respective full chambers. The House version has been referred to the Judiciary and Health and Human Services committees, while the Senate measure has been referred to the Human Services and Judiciary Committees.

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Senate Human Services chairman Josh Green, a Kona Democrat and emergency room physician, has scheduled a hearing for 3:45 p.m. today on the legislation.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.