The Anchorage Daily News reports that an 8-year old boy came forward in 2012 to report he had been sexually abused by a teacher, Lukis Nighswonger. The Wasilla Police Department now says it investigated those allegations, concluded there was insufficient evidence to support criminal charges, and closed the investigation. According to the News,
“There’s so many things we investigate that don’t turn into anything. We’d start … crossing the line into defamation, slander if we brought everything forward,” Amanda Graham said Friday. “But the investigation was completed and no charges were pressed, so that’s where it stopped.”
Wrong and wrong. The Wasilla Police Department broke the law. Twice. For bad reasons.
First, it’s very clear under Alaska law that a police officer who has “reasonable cause to suspect” there may have been an instance of child abuse is mandated – no exceptions – to report the suspicion to the Alaska Department of Health & Social Service. AS 47.17.020 doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt:
(a) The following persons who, in the performance of their occupational duties, or with respect to (8) of this subsection, in the performance of their appointed duties, have reasonable cause to suspect that a child has suffered harm as a result of child abuse or neglect shall immediately report the harm to the nearest office of the department:
(1) practitioners of the healing arts;
(2) school teachers and school administrative staff members of public and private schools;
(3) peace officers and officers of the Department of Corrections;
The Department, not the cops, decides whether or not to investigate further. AS 47.17.020(e). Contrary to what Wasilla Police spokesperson Graham said, there is no risk of defamation. A person acting in good faith in reporting child abuse has absolute immunity. AS 47.17.050.
There’s not much ambiguity in AS 47.17.020, but if there was, it’s eliminated by AS 47.17.025:
(a) A law enforcement agency shall immediately notify the department of the receipt of a report of harm to a child from abuse. Upon receipt from any source of a report of harm to a child from abuse, the department shall notify the Department of Law and investigate the report and, within 72 hours of the receipt of the report, shall provide a written report of its investigation of the harm to a child from abuse to the Department of Law for review.
While it’s not completely clear that the Department wasn’t notified, the absence of any action is pretty strong evidence that they weren’t. Which, of course, allowed the pervert to molest more children.
The Wasilla Police Department not only broke the law; its claimed excuse for breaking the law is non-existent.
The Alaska Legislature has already determined that it is more important to protect kids than it is to worry about whether a crime can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Second, the Wasilla Police Department likely screwed up again by not reporting the allegations to the Mat-Su School Superintendent. AS 47.17.020(f):
(f) If a law enforcement agency determines that a child has been abused or neglected and that (1) the harm was caused by a teacher or other person employed by the school or school district in which the child is enrolled as a student, (2) the harm occurred during an activity sponsored by the school or school district in which the child is enrolled as a student, or (3) the harm occurred on the premises of the school in which the child is enrolled as a student or on the premises of a school within the district in which the child is enrolled as a student, the law enforcement agency shall notify the chief administrative officer of the school or district in which the child is enrolled immediately after the agency determines that a child has been abused or neglected under the circumstances set out in this section
Subsection (f) isn’t quite as clear about a report to the school district, since it applies only if the cops “determine” that the abuse happened. Not evidence that would get you a connection in a criminal case, mind you – not “beyond a reasonable doubt” – but rather if it happened. There’s certainly no indication from the Wasilla Police Department that it even considered its obligations. And the schools say they have no record that the cops ever notified them.
So, yeah, a major series of mistakes. And the risk that the Legislature was concerned about – more abuse of kids – happened. More kids got sexually abused by Nighswonger. If the Wasilla cops had done their duties under Alaska law, maybe the could have been prevented.
Alaska law requires any person employed by the state or by a school district who is required to report abuse under AS 47.17.020 to receive training. Maybe the Legislature needs to require that city police be trained, too.