Government & Politics
 

Those who suspect child abuse carry major new legal responsibilities

After the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal became national news, state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, sponsored legislation requiring coaches to report suspected child abuse. State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, also filed a bill, one that extended whistleblower protections to employees who report abuse of a minor by a co-worker or supervisor. The bills sailed through the Legislature and were signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal.

In an interview with Fox 8 news, Leger said, “There is a glaring example in Pennsylvania of a coach not reporting such abuse. We must do everything that we can to ensure the safety and security of our children.”

That seems reasonable and it appears that the new laws prompted by disgraced Coach Jerry Sandusky’s conviction will protect more kids from abuse.

The Fox 8 story went on to explain other facets of the new laws:

In a revised law, mandatory reporters such as teachers, coaches and anyone who provides services to a child in a voluntary or professional capacity are now considered mandatory reporters on and off the job.

The change has kept Stacie LeBlanc very busy.  She is the executive director of the New Orleans Children’s Advocacy Center.  She’s traveling to schools and different agencies to let people know how the changes will affect them, talking “about these huge additional burdens put on mandatory reporters which requires them to report abuse beyond just their professional capacity,” explains LeBlanc.

She says the biggest concern she’s hearing from mandatory reporters is how they should handle reporting situations in public.

Failure to report sexual abuse by a mandatory reporter, whether on or off the job, is now a felony in Louisiana.

Since the main context of the story was child sexual abuse, LeBlanc’s quote seemed odd. Why would it be a “huge additional burden” for, say, a teacher to report child sexual abuse if they witness it when they’re off the clock?

So I called up LeBlanc and asked for more details about what she meant (and I received a full helping).

First off, there are many people who still don’t know that they are now classified as mandatory reporters. The New Orleans Children’s Advocacy Center summarizes the legal expansion of the category as follows:

[The existing mandatory reporting laws] have been expanded to include: bus drivers, coaches, professors, technical or vocational instructors/staff members, college and university administrators/staff members, as well as organizational or youth activity providers.

Second, the scope of responsibilities for mandatory reporters has widened and the penalties for not reporting abuse immediately are much stiffer:

The failure of mandatory reporters to report suspected sexual abuse or harsh physical abuse may lead to felony charges, imprisonment for up to three years, and/or fines up to $3,000. In addition, the new laws now hold mandatory reporters responsible for reporting at all times, not just while one is performing professional duties.

We need to remember that certain aspects of the Sandusky case are exceedingly rare.  A Penn State assistant coach actually witnessed Sandusky in the act of sexual abuse, in the locker room showers. That almost never happens. Almost all sexual abuse occurs without witnesses and adults have to go by after-the-fact signs. (Sandusky was found guilty of privately abusing nine other boys over a 15-year period.) And we know that not enough suspected abuse is reported. LeBlanc cited studies which conclude that nearly a third of doctors and nurses say they have seen signs of abuse in patients and not reported it.

So, while the state’s new “Sandusky” laws would harshly penalize unreported encounters like the one that occurred in the Penn State showers, those situations will rarely occur. Overwhelmingly, abuse will be noticed after the fact.

And have many of those now classified as mandatory reporters received any training about the signs of sexual or physical abuse, beyond, perhaps, a few episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”? Do all the coaches now affected by this law know the signs and symptoms of abuse? Do they know what suspicious bruises look like? Are they attuned to discern suspicious emotional changes? Would they know how to talk to an abused child to gather more information?

LeBlanc has already spoken to over six thousand Louisianans about the new mandatory reporter laws and advised them about concrete steps to take to comply with the law and protect children from abuse. But she’s still swamped with calls to explain the new legislation.

LeBlanc says the standard for making a report in this state is very low. One needs only “a cause to believe” that sexual or physical abuse has occurred, a standard even lower than having “reasonable suspicion.”

If you see something that gives you “a cause to believe” that abuse has occurred, you should call the local police station (rather than 911, unless it’s an emergency). If you believe a child’s parent, guardian or caretaker has caused the abuse, call the following hotline 1-855-4LA-KIDS.

LeBlanc wanted to emphasize that the new laws are a good thing. They will protect more children because the new felony penalties will push more people to report suspected abuse, and the whistleblower protections will protect those who report workplace associates or supervisors.

One revelation for me was learning that a report is not an accusation. It’s a statement for authorities to evaluate and investigate.

More reports will save more kids. Conversely, though, more reports will turn out to be false.  A person might have a “cause to believe” abuse is occurring, but upon investigation it may turn out that something else is going on. So we’re going to have to tolerate more false reports, and I can’t imagine that this will be an easy transition—who wouldn’t be mortified if someone wrongly suspects your child has been abused? Who wouldn’t feel like a suspect? It’s a hideous circumstance to contemplate, but it doesn’t take much contemplation to realize that unreported and continuing abuse is far more hideous.

LeBlanc says that if employees at an institution or organization never make a false report—that is, all the reports filed from a group turn out, upon investigation, to be valid—then they are likely not reporting the difficult cases, only the undeniably obvious ones.

Child abuse is never OK, but we can’t pretend that it’s always egregious and easily identified.

Take this example, for instance: Say you’re a teacher at a Louisiana school that administers corporal punishment. After work, you’re in the Wal-Mart parking lot and witness parents  disciplining their child. They take a wooden paddle out of the car trunk and start whipping the kid. Other witnesses are aghast, but it appears to you to be roughly the same level of physical punishment meted out by your school’s disciplinarian. The kid is wailing at blistering volume, but perhaps he always cries that way. A woman standing next to you yells, “Don’t hit him like that!” What do you do, as a mandatory reporter? Do you take down the license plate number and call the police? A parking lot surveillance camera is probably filming you…

I purposely crafted this example so I could take another dig at our state’s continued use of corporal punishment in schools. But I think it is a legitimate “gray area” to ponder. Surely something like that is far more likely to be witnessed than a child rape in a school shower.

The new mandatory reporting laws virtually guarantee that more reports of child abuse are going to be made. But it seems absurd to me that we allow corporal punishment in schools, while simultaneously requiring teachers, coaches and others to report what may be similar levels of physical punishment witnessed during their off hours—and under threat of felony charges if they don’t.

The new laws expand the scope of mandatory reporters, and require more from them. As LeBlanc said, it’s a good thing as well as an additional burden. I think the rest of us should assist these mandatory reporters by educating ourselves. Mandatory reporters will now “err” on the side of the child, as they should. That will mean more false reports are made, but that’s okay because reports are not accusations, and more reports will help more kids escape abuse.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • uptownPC

    I think the focus on the mandatory reporters is a bit misplaced – as noted above, individuals are rarely charged for failing to report child abuse and those who have been charged clearly demonstrated gross negligence in failing to report an obvious case of abuse.

    The much bigger story here is the sorry state of DCPS’ child protection system. I would recommend that you go around to schools and interview social workers, psychologists, administrators about their experiences with DCPS. I think you would be surprised how often DCPS fails to respond to reports of child abuse or neglect and surprised by the lack of urgency and lack of professionalism of the child welfare responders.