Legal experts: Reporting and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse

Every state has mandated reporting laws, that require adults who work with children to report when they have reasonable suspicion abuse has happened or if a child discloses abuse. The penalties for failure to report differ from state to state and can range from $50 to $5,000 in fines and up to a year in jail. Rarely are the mandated reporters who fail to report criminally charged, however the organizations that employ them are often sued.

The problem is most mandated reporters have not had formal training on child sexual abuse prevention. The mandated reporter training is 99% focused on reporting abuse that has occurred instead of focusing on preventing the abuse in the first place. The mandated reporter training is typically done via an internet course the individuals complete on their own. The course has quizzes but wrong answers can be corrected so nobody fails. Many teachers have confided that the training is boring and they barely pay attention. This training would be much more effective if given in person and included sexual abuse prevention.

I interviewed attorneys from both sides to get their professional opinions. One attorney who represents schools and youth-serving organizations and one attorney who was a former prosecutor and now civil attorney who represents victims filing a civil suit against an entity who fails to protect them from abuse.

Wendy Tucker, Employment Law Attorney at Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch

As an employment attorney who represents schools and youth-serving organizations, how do you advise them in regard to reporting disclosed abuse or suspicious behavior?

“If abuse has been disclosed, schools should always report.  If a student is displaying suspicious behavior, it can be more of a judgment call.  If school employees have a reasonable suspicion that a student is being abused or neglected, they are, of course, required to report.  It is not always clear, however, what constitutes a reasonable suspicion.  If an employee is in doubt, I recommend erring on the side of reporting in order to protect the students as well as the employee who can face legal consequences for failure to report.  Child protective services and law enforcement have investigative tools, more in-depth training and legal authority to better address these concerns and determine if they are valid.”

Allison Worden, former Prosecutor, now Civil Attorney at Gomez Trial Attorneys, Children’s Rights Division.

As a former prosecutor, how often did you see mandatory reporters who failed to report be convicted of a misdemeanor or penalized by having to pay a fine? As a civil attorney, have you seen any cases where there has been a civil suit against the person who failed to report or the organization?

“As a prosecutor, I never saw this. Nobody really went after the organization, sadly. As a civil attorney, we do allege a cause of action entitled breach of mandatory duties. When a school district fails to report immediately as a mandated reporter, we consider that a breach of their mandatory duty, to which they can be held accountable.”

As a civil attorney, how risky is it for a youth-serving organization to not report or to do their own internal investigation before reporting?

“They should not do their own investigation first, then report. Their duty as a mandated reporter is to report to CPS and police if they suspect, at all – smallest inkling, that child abuse has occurred. Then they can run their own investigation as well. But, they are legally obligated to report first.”

In my opinion, the CA mandated reporter training does very little to train staff on prevention measures, only reporting incidences. I would like to see more laws that require prevention training. What are your thoughts on that?

Wendy Tucker:

“Legally requiring prevention training could be very helpful to students and school employees.  How helpful it is, however, will be dependent on the type of training required.  We don’t want it to be just one more box that schools check on a form.  Things to think about include whether the law will specify what elements the training must cover and what credentials or training the trainer must have.  I also recommend that the training be in-person rather than online as I find that people learn so much more in person.”

Allison Worden:

“I agree. In terms of training, perhaps it could be more along the lines of early detection. For sexual abuse, identifying grooming behaviors before the actual molest occurs. Teachers/staff/administrators should be very knowledgeable in this regard and they are not. I am not aware of any mandatory trainings in schools that address these issues.”

Both sides of the fence agree that to mitigate risk for the students and the organization, mandatory reporters should always report and child sexual abuse prevention training is key. The cost to children and the organization for failing to do so far outweighs the minimal time and money required. Recently ABC Nightline dedicated an entire show about schools who fail to report that featured David Ring from Taylor & Ring whose law firm represents students suing their former schools for failure to report. More on that here.