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Personal Judgment in Reporting Abuse
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Saturday July 01, 2006
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight

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You work in a school with a principal uses his own judgment about whether or not to call child protective services about suspected child abuse. There are many times when black eyes and bruised cheeks go unreported because the principal knows the child’s parents and says they shouldn’t be reported. The reasons he gives for not reporting usually involve protecting the school/parent relationship to better serve the children. For example, the principal calls in the parents when abuse is suspected, gains the parents’ trust and lets the family know the school won’t tolerate abuse. He feels parents will move their children to another school if reported to child protective services and believes the children are better off in this school. The principal says he can do far more good for the children by preserving and building relationships with the families. He works hard to help the children in this troubled community, and the school has a reputation of being an oasis in a community fraught with social ills, including a high incidence of problems including child abuse.

Teachers almost always inform both you and the principal when they see signs of possible abuse. The principal screens the cases and directs you to call in child protective services only when he decides it appropriate. Is there a legal or ethical dilemma for you in these situations?

Child abuse and neglect are severely underreported. For example, a 10-year study reviewing the medical examiner’s reports in North Carolina revealed that the state’s record system underreported the number of deaths due to battering or abuse by almost 60 percent. The meaning of these statistics is clear; child abuse is not uncommon. Each year, thousands of these youngsters come through the halls of America’s schools and interact with other students, teachers and school counselors. Child abuse and neglect are defined in both state and federal law and the standard of what constitutes abuse varies from state to state Professionals can determine what constitutes abuse or neglect in their own state by visiting the State Statutes Search athttp://nccanch.acf.hhs.gov/general/legal/statutes/search/.

Reporting child abuse or neglect can be done by anyone who suspects abuse of any kind by calling the police, by contacting the Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 4-A-CHILD or the local child abuse hotline. However, school counselors, as well as other educators, are mandated in all states to report suspected abuse under penalty of criminal charges. They are required by law to report the reasonable suspicion of abuse, even in the absence of hard evidence.

Child abuse cannot always be definitively identified. What really constitutes child abuse? What's the difference between "bad parenting" and abuse? The ethical decision lies in deciding. Some cases are simple and have irrefutable and conclusive evidence. Physical and sexual abuse can fall into this category. Other cases are occasions to weigh the facts and the specific considerations of each case. It is this gray area that is worrisome. Being a mandatory reporter requires judgment. Deciding what is a preponderance of evidence and what extenuating circumstances need to be considered is truly an ethical conundrum. In matters of family and the sanctity of the home, due process of thought is needed. Decisions around neglect, mental and emotional harm and threat almost always move into areas of judgment and degrees. There is no easy answer. Individual perceptions and personal beliefs will influence choices. Being directed by law to report means being aware and alert to the potential of abuse, then deciding its presence.

State statutes vary slightly in language, but the meaning is generally the same and reads similarly. Educators and counselors are mandatory child abuse reporters, which means they:

• Have an absolute duty to report.
• Do not have to be certain; suspicion is enough to establish a duty.
• Have a duty that is not discretionary but is absolutely clear.
• Have an obligation to report within 48 hours.
• Are protected as good faith reporting is assumed.
• Do not have to have their name as part of the school report.
• Understand that there is not a statute of limitations on child abuse reporting.

School counselors must be willing to identify and also acknowledge the signs of abuse and be brave enough to take action, knowing there is tremendous support for them in the law and their ethical codes. Although there may be some fear associated with reporting abuse, school counselors need to keep in mind their feelings of fear pale in comparison to those of the abused children who have no control over their situation.

Without question, school counselors are ethically, morally and legally responsible to report suspected child abuse. Some states and school districts have policies requiring a child abuse report to be funneled through a designee in the school such as the principal, but educators can’t give away their obligation to see that abuse is reported if they see signs of child abuse. In the hypothetical situation above, signs of child abuse remain unreported because of the principal’s approach to handling child abuse. Legally and ethically, the school counselor is required to report this abuse, even if it goes against individual school practice. Politically, this is fraught with landmines because the principal may view these calls as interference and insubordination.

This principal is not intentionally trying to harm his students. He believes he is trying to work within the standards of his community. He also believes that if he reported every suspected case of child abuse, he would be disrespecting the family structure. He hesitates getting the authorities involved because he wants to build the school as a trusting inviting place for parents.

School counselors who find themselves in similar situations should talk to the principal about the legal duty to report so they can protect him, themselves and the teachers from liability. Going against the principal’s decision in such a situation is likely to cause problems between the school counselor and the principal. However, the reasons to report far outweigh reasons not to report. The school counselor should assure the principal that it is possible to work with families by explaining why the report was made and by offering help and support to find resources. Talking about the proactive programs to combat family violence and child abuse with families and administrators will educate adults and prevent some of these problems before they start. Extending kindness and support and being sympathetic to the frustrations of parenting will satisfy the principal’s desire to maintain a trusting and inviting school for parents. Explaining to parents that this not about punishment but about help will instill a trusting relationship with the school.

The fact remains that school counselors cannot abdicate their responsibilities in situations like the one described above. Even if the principal or other educators do not believe a call to child protective services is needed, if reasonable suspicion is present, the school counselor is legally and ethically bound to report the suspected abuse or neglect. Remember, indisputable evidence of abuse is not needed.