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Child Abuse: Who Must Report?
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Tuesday November 01, 2011
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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You are a school counselor who has built a good working relationship with your principal except for one area. Your principal is adamant that he wants to be in charge of making all child abuse reports to Child Protective Services (CPS). You have doubts that he will call CPS on all suspected abuse cases because of derogatory remarks he has made in passing about CPS and how, “We should handle some cases with families who trust us as CPS will only make matters worse.” Up to this point he has called in all suspected abuse cases that you have passed along to him, but you worry it is just a matter of time before he takes matters into his own hands. Your questions are:
  • If I have reasonable suspicion that child abuse has occurred and turn it over to my principal to report and he or she decides not to call the abuse registry, am I liable for any subsequent harm that comes to the child?
  • Can I legally leave it to my principal to report if I received the first outcry, or am I mandated to report the abuse myself?
Each state has different statutes regarding these questions. See your state’s statutes. In Georgia you wouldn’t be liable if your school district has a policy that you must report the suspected abuse to a supervisor or designee. The Georgia statute explains that mandated reporters who comply with their school district’s policy to report suspected abuse to a supervisor “shall be deemed to have fully complied” with their legal duties as a mandated reporter. In Massachusetts, school counselors are invited to report to a supervisor, and the responsibility then shifts to the supervisor. “If a mandated reporter is a member of…the staff of a school or facility, the mandated reporter may instead notify the person or designated agent in charge of such institution, school or facility who shall become responsible for notifying the department in the manner required by this section.”

However, if you are a practicing school counselor in Kentucky and Texas, passing the information to your supervisor doesn’t relieve you of your obligations.

In some states it is enough that you have caused a report to be made. Arizona state statute says, “Any person who reasonably believes that a minor is or has been the victim of physical injury, abuse, child abuse, a reportable offense or neglect…shall immediately report or cause reports to be made.”

In Wyoming, both the school counselor and the supervisor must report for added insurance. “If a person reporting child abuse or neglect is a member of the staff of a…school, facility or agency, he shall notify the person in charge or his designated agent as soon as possible, who is thereupon also responsible to make the report or cause the report to be made.”

State statutes vary in language, but the meaning is the same in spirit for all 48 states and the District of Colombia. Alaska and Pennsylvania don’t specifically encompass school counselors in state statute, instead naming teachers and administrators, but school counselors are ethically bound by virtue of language in their certificate, state’s ethical codes for educators, and ASCA’s position statement and ethical guidelines.

Certainty isn’t required. Forty-four states mention the term “reasonable” in regard to suspicion. (See italics in online chart.) There is nothing in any state statute that implies certainty is required. New York’s statute gives typical language found in the 44 statutes. “A report is required when the reporter has reasonable cause that..if correct, would render the child an abused or maltreated child.”

States make their own laws, but federal legislation defines a minimum set of acts/behaviors determining abuse or neglect: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2008). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines child abuse as, “Words or overt actions that cause harm, potential harm or threat of harm to a child. Acts of commission are deliberate and intentional; however, harm to a child may or may not be the intended consequence. Intentionality only applies to the caregiver’s acts – not the consequences of those acts. For example, a caregiver may intend to hit a child as punishment but not intend to cause the child to have a concussion.”

Do we investigate or ask children to be co-conspirators in documenting their own abuse? A school counselor in a Texas middle school was arrested Nov. 23, 2010, after admitting she suggested to a child who was being sexually assaulted that the child should video record any future assaults. The school counselor was arrested on suspicion of felony abandoning or endangering a child and failure to timely report abuse, a misdemeanor. The victim recorded a sexual assault on Nov. 17 on a school-district-issued laptop.

A truant officer in a school in Laredo Texas Independent School District was arrested and fired after he failed to notify authorities of child abuse and neglect. The school-board-employed truant officer visited the home of Katherine Cardenas just hours before she was found dead in a cabinet outside her home. Perez visited the home and found the children were alone. He waited until the mother came home, notified the principal but not child protective services. In Texas the truant officer could not rely on anyone else to call in an abuse case.

If it is suspected that the abuse is not being inflicted by the parent but by someone who does not have care, custody or control of the minor, the report should be made to the police, sheriff or peace officer depending on where you live. If in doubt call the child protective services office and ask for help as to where to report.

Child abuse and neglect are severely underreported. From 2001–2009, 13,856 children were reported to have died as a result of child abuse, but the number is estimated to be about 7,000 higher. Each year, thousands of abused students walk the halls of America’s schools and interact with other students, teachers and school counselors. As school counselors we cannot contribute to the number of unreported cases.

Reporting of child abuse or neglect can be done by calling the police, the National Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 4-A-CHILD or the local child abuse hotline. ASCA’s position statement on child abuse and neglect states, “It is the professional school counselor’s legal, ethical and moral responsibility to report suspected cases of child abuse/neglect to the proper authorities.”

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is a professor at the University of North Florida and co-chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu. Contact the author for references.

To submit your questions for a future column, e-mail them to ethics@schoolcounselor.org.