Delaware’s Bradley bills: Effective in raising voices to stop child sexual abuse?
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden details how the Bradley Bills will help protect children from the dangers of child predators.
The spotlight on recent child sex abuse allegations at Penn State and Syracuse Universities and involving a prominent Philadelphia sports columnist may hit too close to home to some in Delaware. Very recently, in December 2009, Delawareans were coming to grips with the arrest of former pediatrician Earl Bradley for sexually molesting scores of young patients at his Lewes office. Delaware’s response was quick. In 2010, legislators prepared a package of bills—known collectively as the “Bradley bills”— designed to strengthen patient protection and improve oversight of the medical profession, passed those bills unanimously, and Governor Jack Markell signed them into law in June of that year. But in the year and a half since, how much of a difference have the new laws made?
Two reviews were ordered following Bradley’s arrest—one by the Attorney General’s office and another by Linda L. Ammons, dean of Widener Law School. Both revealed systemic failures that allowed Bradley to continue practicing despite numerous red flags of misconduct raised by colleagues and family members.
The “Bradley bills” were designed to tighten regulations on doctors and clarify the legal obligations of the medical and law enforcement communities to report and share information about suspected physician misconduct and child sexual abuse.
“These are sensitive cases and you need to approach them in a way that offers opportunities for victims to come forward and to feel they’re not going to run the risk of being re-victimized,” said Mike Barlow, chief legal counsel in the Office of the Governor.
The new laws contain the following major provisions:
- A requirement that there be another adult present when the physician examines a disrobed patient aged 15 years or younger;
- A requirement that doctors, police and prosecutors receive additional training in recognizing and reporting child abuse;
- A requirement that physicians undergo the same background checks as teachers and other professionals who work with youth;
- A more robust reporting process enhanced by strengthening the Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline’s ability to police unprofessional conduct and clarifying and simplifying its administrative procedures to improve efficiency and its ability to work with law enforcement.
Last year, the threat of license revocation for misconduct or failure to report child sexual abuse was extended to include mental health and chemical dependency professionals, nurses, dentists, social workers, psychologists, dentists and dental hygienists, and physician’s assistants. “One of the main impacts of this package of legislation is to make sure that the community, the state, caregivers, providers, doctors and citizens know that they have a mandatory duty to report child abuse and neglect when they see it to the state,” said Attorney General Beau Biden.
Dean Ammons, who made 68 recommendations in her Bradley case review, most of which were included in the legislation, agrees. “You can’t legislate morals,” she said. “But what the state can do is remove or attempt to remove barriers that make it complicated or difficult for people to do the right thing.”
Indeed, experts commend Delaware for its ability to act swiftly and decisively where other states have failed. “Pennsylvania is a good example,” said Stephen J. Neuberger, attorney and partner in The Neuberger Firm in Wilmington. “They had the grand jury report (on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia) which just boggles the mind and that didn’t get the legislature to do anything.”
But are penalties ever enough to counter the reluctance among medical professionals to speak ill of a colleague? Certainly depriving a licensed professional of the ability to earn a living is a powerful enough incentive to come forward. “They have more to lose if they lose their license,” said Thaddeus Pope, formerly associate professor of law at Widener University School of Law and now director of the Health Law Institute at the Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. “If they lose their license, that’s it. They have hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.”
The Division of Professional Regulation has seen a marked increase in complaint reporting since regulatory reforms took effect in 2010. The number of disciplinary actions taken by the board jumped from just seven in 2009 to 25 in 2010. In addition, over 200 complaints have been made by those with a duty to report them from June 2010 to the present.
“Before (the legislation), reporting was pretty much nil and now we’re seeing what we think is a good amount of reporting that has resulted in some major cases in the last year or two,” said James Collins, director of the Division of Professional Regulation. “We’re definitely hearing from medical facilities now; we’re definitely hearing from healthcare professionals now and that wasn’t happening before.”
But while the legislation is a major step forward in raising awareness of the unacceptability of child sexual abuse and promoting the notion that stopping child sexual abuse is everyone’s responsibility, laws can only accomplish so much. “I think we closed a lot of the loopholes in the law and put penalties in place that were not there before,” said Sen. Karen E. Peterson, D-Stanton. “But people break the law all the time. Eighty-five percent of the child sexual abuse cases involve family members or family acquaintances and families are unwilling to break up the family unit and I think that has contributed to the silence.”
Moreover, the criminal justice system addresses the issue only after the abuse has occurred and as such does not do a good job of formulating solutions to reduce child sexual abuse or to help heal its negative consequences. “It (legislation) makes us feel like we’re doing something to help when we’re really not,” said Chrysanti Leon, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware. “If we’re going to pass new laws, if we’re going to require things of one another, let’s take it back several steps and not do it after the fact.”
Better educating the public about child sexual abuse will help break the silence and taboo that surrounds child sexual abuse and bolster the efforts made in the legislative arena. In September, Biden announced a coordinated initiative to educate adults about recognizing the signs of child abuse and their legal obligation to report suspected crimes. The partnership, which includes Prevent Child Abuse Delaware, the YMCA of Delaware as well as the Attorney General’s office, aims to train 35,000 Delawareans or about 5 percent of the population, in the “Steward of Children” sexual abuse program.
“[Nationally], one out of four girls is sexually assaulted before they’re 18,” said Biden. “One out of six boys is sexually assaulted before they’re 18. Only one out of ten of these victims is ever able to muster the courage to report because nine out of ten of the perpetrators know or say they love or had the child entrusted to them. So it should come as no surprise that children who don’t have voices have a tough time raising their voice to report someone who has raped or abused them. It’s not a child’s responsibility. It’s our responsibility.”