Non-Mandated Reporters and Reporting Suspicions of Child Maltreatment
By Robert Hugh Farley, M.S.
While state law mandates many individuals and professions across the United States to report suspicions of child maltreatment, many individuals in the general public are not mandated to report suspected child maltreatment to the authorities. Nevertheless, if one thinks or believes a child has been harmed, reporting one’s suspicion to the authorities as soon as possible is critical to protect a child.
Incidents of child maltreatment exist in a variety of forms:
- Child neglect
- Physical child abuse
- Child abuse homicide
- Sexual child abuse
- Child sexual exploitation
- Emotional or psychological abuse
Across the United States, state laws address reporting child abuse to the authorities when one has a suspicion that a child has been abused. One does not have to prove that the abuse actually occurred in order to make a report to the authorities.
For example, one may suspect child maltreatment has occurred if:
- A child says directly that he or she has been abused.
- A child says that he or she knows a child who is being abused or has been abused.
- A subordinate says that a child has notified him or her that a child is being abused or has been abused.
- A subordinate says that a staff member at a school frequently takes a child to secluded areas at the school for “private” one-on-one talks.
- A subordinate says that a staff member at a school frequently allows children to fish in his or her pockets for candy or treats.
- Direct observation of a child’s peculiar behavior characteristics that leads you to suspect child abuse has occurred or is occurring.
- Direct observation of multiple injuries on a child, in various states of healing, leads you to suspect child abuse has occurred or is occurring.
- First hand background knowledge of a child’s family life that appears to place children at risk leads you to suspect that child neglect has occurred or is occurring.
- An adult, such as a co-worker or neighbor, says he or she suspects a child is being abused or has been abused.
- Discovery of “troubling” digital images of children or what you suspect is possible child pornography on a computer, cell phone, or electronic device.
- Notification by another person that he or she has discovered “troubling” digital images of children or possible child pornography on a computer, cell phone, or electronic device.
- Suspicion that a troubled child is being “groomed” by an adult over the Internet.
In this situation a report can be made to law enforcement from anywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, by contacting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Cyber Tipline at 800-843-5678 or www.cybertipline.com
Although this is not an exhaustive list of circumstances under which one might suspect child maltreatment, the list includes common scenarios that authorities across the United States will investigate. An immediate telephone call to the authorities, by a caring adult, will allow child abuse professionals, from a multi-disciplinary team (MDT), to either confirm or refute your suspicion that child maltreatment occurred.
It is not unusual for many adults to be reluctant when their observations lead to a suspicion of child abuse. Because many children react differently when abused, there is no single reaction that can be clearly associated with child abuse. There are, however, a number of possible child behaviors, such as self-mutilation or wariness of physical contact, that have been frequently associated with abuse. Exploring the behavioral indicators of child abuse that are identified in the many articles that are located on the VIRTUS website may help to educate one on these possible indicators.
Good Faith – Immunity
A concern that is often expressed is whether one who reports suspected child abuse might be sued. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Information Gateway, all of the states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands provide some form of immunity from liability for persons who, in good faith, report suspected child abuse or neglect under the reporting laws. Immunity statutes are designed to protect reporters from civil or criminal liability. This protection is extended to mandated and non-mandated or voluntary reporters.
Alternatively, an anonymous report can always be made to the authorities. Unfortunately, anonymous reports rarely provide the detailed information required by an investigator for a comprehensive investigation.
If one goes to the VIRTUS homepage (www.virtus.org) and accesses the “Other Resources – Reporting Child Abuse” link, one will find the Child Protective Services (CPS) contact information for all fifty states.
It is not the responsibility of the public, a school principal, an agency administrator, or a private attorney to conduct an investigation and decide whether child maltreatment has or has not occurred. Trained child abuse professionals will make that determination, and they are available in every state 24/7. One only needs to suspect child maltreatment in order to make a report to the proper authorities.