“If you see something, say something!” Senator Mikulski invoked this call to action several times throughout a hearing convened last week on prevention of child abuse. As illustrated by the tragedies at Penn State and Syracuse universities that recently have dominated national media, all too often adults shirk this essential responsibility and fail to protect our nation’s children from being abused and neglected.

The panel heard testimony examining the current state of federal laws aimed at preventing abuse, and considered proposals to increase protections for children victimized by abuse or neglect. One such proposal, introduced by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), is entitled the Speak Up to Protect Every Abused Kid Act (S. 1877). This proposal would require any state government that accepts federal child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment funding to adopt a basic set of protections that obligate adults to report known or suspected child abuse and neglect to law enforcement or child welfare authorities.

In other words, this provision would expand the pool of adults who must report suspected abuse, so-called “mandatory reporters,” to include all adults who encounter a child they believe to be abused or neglected. While all states identify a certain subset of adults as mandatory reporters—typically professionals such as teachers, doctors, and psychologists likely to come into contact with children—only 18 states make all adults mandatory reporters. By making everyone a mandatory reporter, this bill sends the clear message that child abuse is not just the problem of teachers or parents or psychologists, it is the community’s responsibility to create a culture of safety around our kids.

While not the only reform needed to improve the child welfare system, targeting and bolstering reporting requirements is an important first step in increasing protections for children. Importantly, the bill would also make federal funds available to help states undertake education and training campaigns to help adults who work with children detect the signs of abuse or neglect, while also requiring the establishment of state task forces that focus on strategies to improve reporting of child abuse and neglect. Public awareness and training for mandatory reporters is imperative. Both professionals and the general community need to understand their responsibility, the proper reporting avenues, and the consequences of reporting.

Our children deserve the basic guarantee that they will be safe from abuse, and that they will be believed when they take the brave step of coming forward and reporting on their own. One of the panelists, former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, highlighted the alarming statistic that a child will often have to tell 6 or 7 adults about their abuse before they are believed. This is unacceptable. Responsibility for taking protective action in cases of alleged child abuse should not be left to the victims.

Senators Mikulski and Casey demonstrated their commitment to moving forward with a measured and comprehensive response to recent national tragedies. Both senators called for more resources to be directed to child protective services agencies so that reports are responded to swiftly. Moreover, the committee plans to urge Health and Human Services to collect better data so that we can have a more thorough understanding of the scope of the problem. A sound footing in research is necessary to craft the best legislation possible for our kids.

We cannot tolerate failure to meet our shared responsibility to protect the safety of our children. It is vital that we learn from these avoidable tragedies, and pass the reforms necessary to compel those who witness abuse to take action and report it.