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School Counselor Questioned by Student's Parents After Child Abuse Report
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Tuesday March 01, 2016
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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You had to make a report to child protective services (CPS) regarding one of your students. Shortly thereafter, you are summoned to the principal’s office, where he sits with this child’s parents, the alleged perpetrators. The principal explains to you that the parents know it was you who called in the report, and they are there to find out what their child said to you and why you felt justified in calling CPS. You are stunned but have the presence of mind to ask the principal for a private word. You explain you don’t want to meet with the parents as you think you can better protect the confidentiality of your student and yourself if you aren’t forced to answer their questions. The principal still requires you to meet with these high-profile, high-powered parents. Did the principal break any laws in this scenario? 

Educators play a critical role in reporting child abuse, and federal and state laws are written to protect the educator’s role in reporting. Although every state has its own unique statute for child abuse reporting, all states have two important commonalities: 1) all states require school counselors to report child abuse; and, 2) all states provide educators immunity from criminal and civil liability in good-faith reporting. Why do our lawmakers go to such lengths to protect school counselors? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (DHHS) and federal legislation Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), educators have more access to students than most other professionals, and educators are the reporters of more than half the child abuse complaints. Legislators recognize the vital role educators play in intervention and prevention of child abuse, and therefore, logically even if not legally, educators should not have to face the alleged perpetrator. Let’s unpack this case to see if legal as well as logic can prevail in supporting this school counselor. 

What do the laws say when a report is made in good faith and the reporter finds the school district is requiring them to face the alleged perpetrator?
A typical state statute says a child abuse report is confidential, the reporter is to remain confidential, the reporter is not to be held criminally or civilly liable for good-faith reporting, an employer cannot hinder the employee reporting, and the reporter’s employer cannot discriminate or retaliate against the reporter. State statutes vary, so check to see if your state’s statute has all of these elements.
Here is an example of state protection for reporters: No employer shall discharge, discriminate or retaliate against a mandated reporter who, in good faith, files a report, testifies or is about to testify in any proceeding involving child abuse or neglect. Any employer who discharges, discriminates or retaliates against that mandated reporter shall be liable to the mandated reporter for treble damages, costs and attorney's fees.

What if the principal explained the parent meeting is not retaliation against the school counselor but rather an attempt to support a stronger relationship with the family.
The meeting may well be the principal’s attempt to repair some relationship damage with the parents or assuage the anger of these high-profile parents. Regardless of the motive for the meeting, the principal has stepped on the spirit if not the actual word of confidentiality for mandated reporters, who are to be protected and not subjected to having to justify their report or breach the victim’s confidence.
Even if the parents correctly guessed the school counselor was the one who called CPS wasn’t her employer wrong in affirming their suspicions?

When the principal agreed with the parents’ demand to meet with the school counselor, he essentially affirmed to them that she was the reporter. Whether the parents guessed correctly or not, it should never be affirmed that they are correct. It is better to leave the answer ambiguous so the parents never really know conclusively who called.

CPS caseworkers are legally prohibited from revealing the name of the referral source. Confidentiality clauses for mandated reporters usually read something like the following: The identity of the reporting party and the contents of the child abuse report are confidential and may only be disclosed to specified persons and agencies.

When the parents came to question the person reporting the alleged child abuse, the principal should have directed them to the school or district’s one point of contact for such issues.

Administrators shouldn’t express or imply to the abuse reporter that a meeting with parents accused of child abuse is expected or even desired. Any coaxing or coercion for such a meeting offends the logic of confidentiality laws. The school counselor may use the opportunity to try to help parents/guardians develop better approaches in working with their children, but it should be the school counselor’s decision as to whether he or she feels positive gains can come from such a meeting.

What if the child abuse case is still an open investigation?
If a case is still open and the school counselor or administrator talks to the parents, it could be considered interfering with an investigation. According to DHHS, “It is critical to remember that the educator should not reveal any information pertinent to the report made to CPS or law enforcement.”
What about the child’s confidentiality? The school counselor is being asked to tell the alleged perpetrator what the child said that triggered the report.

The school counselor was correct in telling the principal she wants to protect her student’s confidentiality, and a meeting with the parents would likely derail this effort. If the meeting cannot be avoided and parents want to know what was said, as politically as possible the school counselor can remind everyone that she is not at liberty to “reveal any information pertinent to the report made to CPS or law enforcement.” Hopefully this would be enough to support confidentiality. If parents shift to asking for information outside the report, it is difficult to refuse; the best course of action is not to be in the meeting at all. If forced to meet, the school counselor could use the opportunity to try and deflect blame off the child. 

What if the investigation reveals the case to be unfounded or unsupported?
Good-faith reporting only requires reasonable suspicion not certainty. School counselors are never to wait until they have conclusive evidence but are asked to exercise judgment. If the report was made in good faith and is not frivolous, the principal’s support should be the same whether the school counselor was right or wrong in her suspicions.

What if your principal wants to meet prior to a CPS report, especially when it involves high-powered, high-profile parents?
Read your state statute to see if there is something similar to the DHHS statement. “No supervisor or administrator may impede or inhibit a report or subject the reporting person to any sanction. Administrators who refuse to report or who make it difficult to report cause several problems for other adults on their staff. Not only does the educator feel unsupported and even undermined but educators whose administrators do not report may be held liable for the unreported maltreatment. Thus, the educator is put in a position of being vulnerable to legal sanction or having to bypass the administrator.” 

In 2012 there was a case involving this point. A school counselor told her principal a student had tried to hang herself, and the student’s friend reported the reason was the student’s stepfather sexually abused her. School system records obtained under the Georgia Records Act indicated the school counselor did not call in the abuse, and the principal notified CPS past the mandated reporting period. Both the principal and school counselor were arrested. The principal spent the night in jail, and they both lost their jobs. The principal admitted an error in judgment, and ironically, the school counselor may have saved both their jobs if she has reported to CPS instead of just her principal.

Is there a way to check the facts if the parents tell me CPS found the abuse was unfounded?
Many states have laws similar to this one: Within 30 days of receiving a report from a mandated reporter, the department shall notify the mandated reporter, in writing, of its determination of the nature, extent and cause or causes of the injuries to the child and the services the department intends to provide to the child or the child's family. However, not all states allow for feedback to the reporter. Check your state statute.

Who do I contact to help me if I find myself in a situation as described in this case?
Your local or state CPS administrators are a good resource and can provide school district administrators with clarification if they are engaging in practices counter to the spirit of the law regarding reporter confidentiality. The fallout when reporters’ confidentiality is trampled is to risk reticence in reporting. It stands to reason that an educator might think twice if past experience meant having to face parents and justify one’s actions, breach a child’s confidence, cause more trauma for the child and be viewed as an adversary rather than an advocate. It is completely counter to the spirit of the law to require the reporter to face the alleged perpetrator, especially when the reporter is asking that this not happen.

What if the parents tell me I am never to talk to their child again for any reason? Do I have to honor this demand?
Just as the math teacher and English teacher can do their jobs without parental permission, generally speaking, so can school counselors. However, since counseling involves the social/emotional arena, it is considered best practice to have parental permission for individual counseling. When parents/guardians expressly state they don’t want counseling for their child, it is best not to dismiss their wishes. If you believe a child is in danger and the parents/guardians are trying to hide their behavior by keeping your from their child, enlist help, and alert everyone to keep a keen eye out for signs of abuse. The fallout and strain of insisting on working with the child might do more harm than good for the child, who is caught between in the middle between parents and educators. If a child needs individual counseling, parents might agree to another school counselor or an outside agency.

It is always best practice to approach administrators with political acumen rather than confidentiality as a weapon. It never makes sense to enter into a power struggle with our administrators but rather to work through issues with facts and legal muscle whenever possible. If you know your state’s statute on child abuse and have it handy you can advocate through the words of legislators and federal agencies in charge of child abuse. Help your administrators understand that even if parents have guessed you’re the one who called CPS, administrators should cite reporter confidentiality, refuse to affirm who called and educate parents about how mandated reporters are protected. Encourage the principal to identify one educator as the point person for all reports. If the district has a written policy it can be presented to parents before a meeting ever begins and set the tone for a more productive line of discussion.

Administrators should support school counselors who report in good faith regardless of the case’s final disposition. Working together school counselors and administrators can be powerful allies in the prevention and intervention of child maltreatment.

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is professor, University of North Florida and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu.