Is Mandatory Reporting Mandatory Enough?

What are the responsibilities of those who work with children to report signs of child abuse? And why do cases such as those at Penn State go unreported for so long? It may be that mandatory reporting regulations are difficult to enforce, confusing in practice and not aggressive enough.

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What Is Mandatory Reporting?

Though laws vary, most states have laws that are known as 'mandatory reporting' for adults who work in a professional setting where children are present. Adults are commonly required to report any suspected abuse to the local police or child-protection service agencies. This can also include signs of neglect or evidence of conditions that could lead to abuse or neglect. These laws apply to teachers, child care providers, physicians and many other groups.

Though rare, some states only require reporting to workplace superiors. This is the case in Pennsylvania, where the alleged rampant child molestation that occurred by assistant Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was reported to school officials, but not the police. While children continued to be put in harm's way, the issue was kept quiet by the institution for years.

What Stops the Reporting?

There are myriad reasons behind the failure to report abuse. Those who witness abuse may not understand what they've seen or if it qualifies as abuse. They may believe that they need more evidence before going to the authorities. The relationship between the witness and the abuser can also complicate reporting. For example, if a person witnesses his or her boss in an act of potential abuse, then there may be a fear of retaliation. It often comes down to worry over falsely accusing someone of what is often a heinous and brutal crime.

When a child tells a teacher or other adult about abuse, that adult may believe that he or she is required to keep that information confidential. In fact, the law in many states supersedes privileged communication laws. For example, otherwise protected confidential communication between a husband and his wife or a doctor and his or her patient doesn't prevent the legal obligation to report abuse. However, many states have affirmed the privileged communication between lawyers and their clients as well as between clergy and those who confess to them.

Encouraging Reporting

Outrage over what occurred at Penn State has brought a renewed focus on mandatory reporting regulations. For example, Louisiana's governor recently expanded that state's laws to require reporting to law enforcement within 24 hours by those at public colleges, not just K-12 schools and child care centers. That was an acknowledgment that children often participate in activities and classes at local colleges. Other states may follow, as it seems like good policy to make laws regarding child abuse prevention as powerful, broad and clear as possible.

Those who fail to report face legal repercussions. While it isn't yet clear what legal punishments those at Penn State who failed to stop Sandusky may face, they've already faced other penalties. These include firings, public embarrassments and societal condemnations.

Child abuse may not always be as obvious as what allegedly occurred at Penn State, and it may not take place on the same scale, but hopefully those who work with children will learn from this example. It's not just a moral obligation to report child abuse, but a legal one as well. It's the obligation of those who work with children to understand the law and err on the side of caution in order to prevent more children from being hurt.

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