Local DWU students help with bill on 2020 legislative docket

MITCHELL – After falling by one vote on the House floor during the 2019 legislative session, a group of students and professors at Dakota Wesleyan University are revamping efforts in 2020 to get a bill passed that would add clergy to the list of mandatory reporters for suspected child abuse and neglect.

Approximately 46 states either specifically include clergy in their reporting laws or include an “any person” classification. South Dakota is not one of them.

Officially designated as South Dakota House Bill 1212 on the 2020 legislative docket, the bill has completed the writing stage and the group has prepared a report to later be presented to committee.

Last week, Dr. Joel Allen’s Faith and Reason course spent their class time cold-calling clergy around the state to gage their opinions on the bill. Twenty-two contact calls were made and 68 percent of respondents were either strongly or moderately in favor of SD HB 1212. Concerns for those who were neutral, moderately or strongly opposed came primarily from those involved in confession or counseling, with concerns that such acts would potentially be hindered if clergy were mandated to report.

“During several contact calls with clergy, many said they thought they were already mandatory reporters and expressed surprise to learn that they are not,” said Allen, chair of the Religion and Philosophy department at DWU.

Two students at DWU who are passionate about the topic and have been watching the process unfold from its early stages are approaching the 2020 legislative session with a little extra tenacity this year.

Andrea Hult, whose involvement was almost immediate last fall, says that making sure clergy and all members of society know what to do in a situation where abuse and neglect may be present is absolutely crucial. 

“Children are our most valuable members of society and clergy would legally know what to do if they are ever put in a situation that they need to report abuse or neglect,” said Hult.

Rex Schlicht, who was a strong advocate for getting the bill on the legislative docket last year, has decided to help spearhead efforts this time around.

“I was shocked when I first became aware that clergy were not already included on mandatory reporter lists,” said Schlicht. “If this bill would help aid one child, I think all the work is worth it.”

Also heavily involved is Dr. Alisha Vincent, a lay leader with the Dakotas United Methodist Conference, associate professor and chair of the nonprofit administration program at DWU. Learning from last year’s session, Vincent has a clearer view on what changes need to be made and what language needs to be simplified to get the bill passed in 2020.

“We learned so much from working on this legislation last year. Students worked really hard and we had some great support, but we also learned that passing legislation is not a simple process,” said Vincent. “We were disappointed that the bill didn’t get beyond the House last year and I think some of the public was surprised that clergy were not already included as mandatory reporters when the news of the bill dying hit the media. So, we are reenergized to try again this year, hoping that we can get more lawmakers behind the bill and more public to advocate for it in advance of the votes.”

The bill is going to the judicial committee on Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 10 a.m. The group has prepared a report which will be presented as relevant evidence for consideration. Select students and faculty will be going to Pierre to testify in favor of the bill. The House will then vote on the bill, and if passed, will move on to the Senate.

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