AUSTIN Texas has much tougher child-abuse reporting requirements than does Pennsylvania, where witnesses in the Penn State scandal may not have technically broken any laws when they failed to contact authorities.

Failure to report even a suspicion of child abuse in Texas is punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 and up to a year in jail, or both, says Julie Moody, media specialist at the Texas Department of Child and Protective Services,.

"Any professional who works with children and suspects abuse is obligated to report his or her concerns to police or Child Protective Services within 48 hours."

"Professionals" include teachers, coaches, doctors, and correctional officers, among others. Texans who don't work with children also are obligated to report suspected abuse, and must do so immediately.

Not only should the alleged child abuse at Penn State have been reported earlier, child advocates say, it could have been prevented in the first place. Jim McKay, West Virginia state director of the group Prevent Child Abuse, says organizations should establish policies which minimize times when children are in one-on-one situations with adults.

"Make sure there's always at least two adults with one child, or more than one child with one adult. You could reduce over half of the instances of child sexual abuse."

More than 90 percent of abusers have had previous relationships with the children or their families, McKay says. Abuse, he adds, can damage a child for life, often causing physical damage, mental and drug problems, and criminal behavior. He says the United States spends more than $100 billion a year treating its effects.

McKay says parents should find out if child-centered organizations require background checks.

"You want to ask those questions as a parent. Does the local youth sports organization have background checks for coaches and assistant coaches who will be working with the children?"

State law shields reporters from retribution and protects their identities - as long as reports are made in good faith. The Child and Protective Services website - dfps.state.tx us - includes a training section for educators who suspect child abuse.