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Pediatricians/Therapists Cases
Delaware’s Bradley Bills: Effective in raising voices to stop child sexual abuse?

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.”

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.”