Youth Services Law

Mandated Reporting: More Cautionary Tales

Teddy Bear hiding eyes

I’ve run across several news reports that illustrate how strictly authorities are applying mandated reporter laws. In this case from Colorado, a stepfather allegedly told a school principal that a school social worker had inappropriately touched a nine-year-old child. I have not been able to find any description of what the stepfather actually said, but the judge stated that “it was very difficult to discern” what the report was. Nevertheless, according to this account, the judge decided that the principal had “reasonable cause” to believe abuse had occurred.

The chilling part of the story is that, when someone else reported the same claim to the authorities, they determined that the claim was unfounded and did not bring charges against the social worker. Thus, the only person charged and the only person to lose his job was the principal who wished to be responsible in his supervision of staff at his school.

In another case in Connecticut, prosecutors dropped charges against a teacher accused of not reporting sexual abuse. The evidence against her? Text messages in which she agreed with another teacher (later accused of separate instances of abuse) who speculated that a coach was having sex with students. There is no allegation that anyone reported abuse to either teacher or that either of them had any grounds for their speculation. They simply were gossiping with each other. Even though the prosecutor finally recognized the texts for what they were, the teacher apparently lost her job and certainly had to pay for legal help.

In a final case, another principal faces charges for not passing on a report about a coach subsequently accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student. The news article states that the principal failed to report the relationship. The actual report to the principal, however, was only that the coach had been working out in the weight room alone with the student. That action probably violated school rules and appropriate boundaries, but it would not by itself raise suspicions of abuse. As I pointed out in a recent blog post, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between grooming for sexual abuse and good mentoring. This may be one of those cases where the distinction is clear only in hindsight.

These stories show that state authorities are protecting their power with a vengeance, regardless of how little they know about working with youth and supervising staff. In spite of the lack of evidence that mandated reporting laws actually protect children, it is an unshakable article of faith that these laws are essential. Until our legislators and child protection experts are willing to start looking at evidence rather than ideology, those of us in the youth-serving field have to report anything that remotely looks like a reasonable suspicion of abuse.

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