Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect: It’s your moral and legal duty

11/15/2012
student safety
SAMUEL J. SPITALLI

Teachers are busy people, and are always “on.” They take on a variety of roles and have to be quick on their feet. On any given day they will make hundreds of perfunctory decisions, such as whether or not to issue a bathroom pass to a student; when to administer the next test; what to emphasize in the next unit; or what to have on display for the upcoming open house. Other decisions, though, will require teachers to be more thoughtful because of the considerable impact those decisions could have on students’ behavioral or academic performance — as well as on their well-being.

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Because teachers have regular contact with children, they are in a position to observe them closely and to act if something is amiss or alarming. They, like other professionals who have regular contact with children, are mandated or required by law to alert authorities to suspected child abuse or neglect.

The Teacher As Child Advocate

One of the many roles that teachers play is that of confidant. When children view their teachers as trusted friends, they may directly disclose disturbing information to them. When that happens, the best thing to do is to listen carefully. Consider the courage it took to reveal personal issues and the reason the child is coming forward — to get help. The teacher should not take it upon him or herself to interrogate the child or investigate the charges, but simply listen non-judgmentally and remember specifics. Some children already blame themselves for the abuse, so care should be taken to play the role of confidant — a trusted friend.

On the other hand, some children may be embarrassed or ashamed to tell. Others may be fearful because they have been threatened not to tell. In that case, teachers should be alert and attentive to unusual, abnormal, or peculiar aspects about the child that come to their attention — such as physical injuries, medical conditions, personal appearance, poor attendance, personality changes, changes in habits, behavior, etc.

Teachers are not mind readers and are not expected to be 100 percent certain that a child was abused, nor do they have to provide proof that the abuse occurred. When a suspicion is reported, it is taken by child protection agencies and law enforcement as just that — a suspicion — and it is then investigated. The reporter’s anonymity is protected, and he or she is held harmless even if the suspected abuse is subsequently unfounded, as long as the report is made in good faith. It is always advisable for teachers to check with their principal, a colleague, or school nurse about specific policies or protocols in the school district when a decision is made to report abuse.

A Clear Choice

The choice between reporting suspected child abuse and hesitating because of a sliver of doubt is clear: it is better to act in the best interests of children and be wrong than to find out after the fact that abuse occurred and nothing was done. The teacher’s first priority is to protect children. No person’s reputation or stature in the community, nor an institution’s prestige should ever give one pause or moral qualms when reporting suspected child abuse or neglect. Not only will the teacher play a role in keeping children safe, but reporting also may be instrumental in bringing help to families in crisis that need support and interventions.

A teacher or any school official who fails to report suspected child abuse can face serious legal and civil penalties, as well as a possible loss of a job. The sanctions vary from state to state, but some states are now upgrading their laws in the wake of the Penn State University scandal where several officials have been charged with failing to report sexual abuse and, in effect, permitted a monster pedophile to commit horrific acts for years with impunity.

What Is Inexcusable?

If the collapse in moral courage at Penn State has taught us anything, it is that looking the other way and turning a blind eye for any reason whatsoever is both reprehensible and outrageous. It is precisely because educators have made a moral promise to protect children by being mandated reporters that they must never tolerate child abuse by ignoring it or handing it off for someone else to do.

If teachers are simply unsure of their role as mandated reporters and feel unprepared in this area, they are certainly entitled to professional development opportunities to give them the confidence they need. Child protection agencies and law enforcement are always ready to help teachers learn how to recognize signs of child abuse and neglect and also to help them understand their legal obligations. Administrators will also be helpful to teachers by informing and reminding them about reporting requirements so that everyone is on the same page.

Reporting suspected child abuse or neglect is one area of a teacher’s many responsibilities in which he or she must not feel ill equipped or insecure and, therefore, be dissuaded from getting involved. And, this is one area where we are all in this together working on the same team for the benefit of children.

People are not perfect, and they make mistakes. That’s why the law favors the mandated reporter and excuses an unfounded referral for suspected child abuse if it is made in good faith. In other words, the report was simply made out of concern for a child’s safety and best interests and not for any other reason, such as deliberately making a false report to get someone in trouble. Teachers cannot be prosecuted if an investigation does not confirm child abuse when a report is made in good faith.

All states have widely varying statutory penalties for failing to report child abuse as a legal requirement for mandated reporters. As a moral imperative, it is the right thing to do, and the teacher’s actions can make all the difference in the life of a child.

Finally, the teaching profession is not without skeletons in its own closet and needs to do a better job of keeping abusive teachers out of the classroom. The evening news is replete with horrific reports of teachers entrusted with protecting children who themselves have taken advantage of that sacred trust to abuse kids. That is an especially egregious form of abuse of epidemic proportions in our nation’s schools. That is not who we are, and the vast majority of teachers and educators value children and treat them as though they were their own.

Our kids are counting on us to stand up for them and protect them.

It is the right thing to do.

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