KENNEBUNKPORT — As so many sadly know, childhood sexual abuse crosses all socioeconomic lines. To protect children from their alleged abusers, the state should mandate timely assessments by the Department of Health and Human Services whenever a physician reports suspected sexual abuse.

At present, DHHS assessments are discretionary. They need to be made mandatory in order to help place all of Maine’s children in a better position to be protected. A discretionary review policy protects mostly those sexually abused children whose parents don’t take the “right” steps.

If the DHHS is alerted to possible sexual abuse, perhaps through a school or a neighbor, the agency will – hopefully – follow up. Red flags will fly if the parent has not taken the child to a pediatrician, or filed a police report, or applied to the district court for a protection-from-abuse order on behalf of the child. A DHHS investigation will probably take place in those circumstances.

But what about the child whose parent does try to take the right steps?

For that child, the DHHS will most likely not get involved. And that’s not always good for the child – because taking appropriate action and successfully protecting a child may well be two different things. Here’s why.

When a parent calls the DHHS for help with the possibility of sexual abuse, the parent will likely be told to take the child to the pediatrician. If the pediatrician feels that concerns about sexual abuse are legitimate, the pediatrician will generally make a report to the DHHS; make a referral for an evaluation by the Spurwink Sexual Abuse Clinic in Portland; and instruct the parent to prohibit contact with the alleged abuser.

The parent may then petition the court for a temporary protection-from-abuse order, preventing further contact; schedule the Spurwink appointment, and report the incident to the police. If the facts stated in the petition are compelling, the court will issue the temporary protection order. The court hearing on whether that order should become final will be scheduled within 21 days, as mandated by statute.

If there are no concerns about the reporting parent (such as a DHHS history), the DHHS is unlikely to investigate. After all, the parent is doing all the right things. But the 21 days are passing, and the court hearing on finalizing the protection order may take place before Spurwink has completed the evaluation, let alone made the results available.

The child’s pediatrician will be reluctant to get involved without the Spurwink determination. And Spurwink discourages any other involvement prior to its assessment (no police interviews, no counseling sessions). It feels those outside discussions may taint its own process.

So there may be nothing ready to present at the 21-day hearing and, without “evidence,” the judge has little choice but to dismiss the temporary protection order.

Therein lies the problem – especially when there is conflict among the parents about whether the abuse occurred.

When a protective parent does everything right, the DHHS does not get involved. Yet it is only with DHHS involvement that an alleged abuser might successfully be kept away – because a finding by the DHHS that sexual abuse has likely occurred will probably be sufficient for the court to at least extend a temporary protection order, pending the availability of more evidence.

The only other option may be to subject the child to testifying in court and cross-examination by the alleged abuser’s lawyer, whose goal will be to attack the child’s credibility. The risk of inflicting this added trauma is one that will cause most responsible parents and the court to pause long and hard before having a child testify.

While there are other complex and expensive legal maneuvers that might be employed in an attempt to protect a child, these rarely streamline the process.

There is, at least, a partial solution: a legislative mandate that when a physician reports suspected sexual abuse of a minor, the DHHS must assess the situation within five business days. In short, eliminate the department’s discretion to forgo an investigation when a physician reports.

This simple mandate will not be a perfect or complete fix (caseworkers do make mistakes, and some parents will abuse the system), but I believe it would be a good step in the right direction for protecting all of Maine’s children, including those with parents who try hard to do the right thing.