In an increasingly polarized society, there are fewer social issues around which most people can rally than there once were. One that remains, however, is child abuse prevention, which often involves reporting suspected abuse to the proper authorities.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, roughly one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18, with only 12 percent of child sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement agencies.
Approximately one third of child abusers are family members, according to the NSVRC.
Unfortunately, stories about abuse by unrelated individuals who have direct contact with children as volunteers, clergy and/or teachers are also not uncommon. One recent example involves former Palisades and Parkland teacher and coach Christian Willman.
Willman, of Upper Saucon Township, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting numerous students in both districts earlier this year. A lawsuit filed last month on behalf of five of his victims claims both Palisades and Parkland officials could have prevented the abuse, but failed to do so.
Answering questions about who knew what about Willman–and when–will potentially play a role in determining the outcome of the case if it goes to trial. In order to do that, questions about whether school officials suspected abuse and, if so, whether they acted appropriately with regard to their suspicions as mandated reporters may also be raised.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, all educators have certain mandatory reporting responsibilities under the state’s Educator Discipline Act.
“All educators who know of any action, inaction or conduct which may constitute sexual abuse or exploitation or sexual misconduct are now required to file a mandatory report with the Department and shall report such misconduct to his or her chief school administrator and immediate supervisor,” the department states on the Professional Standards and Practices section of its website.
The Professional Standards and Practices Commission is “responsible for promoting professionalism through integrity and adjudicating educator misconduct,” according to the department.
Specifically, under Pennsylvania’s Educator Discipline Act, all chief school administrators are required to report the following within 15 days to the Department of Education as part of mandatory reporting protocol:
(1) Any educator who has been provided with notice of intent to dismiss or remove for cause, notice of non-renewal for cause, notice of removal from eligibility lists for cause or notice of a determination not to reemploy for cause.
(2) Any educator who has been arrested or indicted for or convicted of any crime that is graded a misdemeanor or felony. The term “conviction” includes a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.
(3) Any educator against whom allegations have been made that the educator has committed sexual abuse or exploitation involving a child or student, or engaged in sexual misconduct with a child or student.
(3.1) Information which constitutes reasonable cause to suspect that an educator has caused physical injury to a child or student as a result of negligence or malice.
(4) Any educator who has resigned, retired or otherwise separated from employment after a school entity has received information of alleged misconduct under the Act.
(5) Any educator who is the subject of a report filed by the school entity under the reporting requirements of 23 Pa.C.S. Ch. 63 (relating to child protective services).
(6) Any educator who the school entity knows to have been named as the perpetrator of an indicated or founded report of child abuse or named as an individual responsible for injury or abuse in an indicated or founded report for a school employee under 23 Pa.C.S. Ch. 63.
In spite of these guidelines, there is sometimes confusion over the circumstances under which administrators, teachers and others directly involved in the education of students are legally required to report abuse, said Abbie Newman, who is CEO of Mission Kids.
Mission Kids is a child advocacy center based in East Norriton, Montgomery County, that provides resources for the investigation of child abuse cases.
“Mainly, they are required to report suspected abuse, not proven abuse,” Newman said. “Unfortunately most adults, including mandated reporters, are concerned about what will happen to the suspected (abuser) if they report and are wrong, instead of the other side of the coin, i.e., what happens to the child if they are right and do not report.”
“Perpetrators don’t hang out on street corners in trenchcoats,” she noted. “They are respected members of our communities who manipulate adults as well as children-like teachers in the school community.”
“We need a societal, adult change in attitude to change this problem,” Newman added.
She noted that “many states have laws which require all adults to be mandated reporters.”
Pennsylvania, however, is not one of those states.
Outside schools, there are other individuals who are required to report suspected abuse.
In Pennsylvania, the following adults are considered mandated reporters and are “required to report suspected child abuse if they have reasonable cause to suspect
that a child is a victim of child abuse,” according to the state’s Department of Human Services’ website to help prevent child abuse, KeepKidsSafe.PA.gov.
- Individuals licensed or certified to practice in any health-related field under the jurisdiction of the
Department of State.
- Medical examiners, coroners and funeral directors.
- Employees of a health care facility or providers licensed by the Department of Health who are engaged in the admission, examination, care or treatment of individuals.
- Employees of child care services who have direct contact with children in the course of their employment.
- Clergy, priests, rabbis, ministers, Christian Science practitioners, religious healers or spiritual leaders of any regularly established church or other religious organization.
- Individuals–paid or unpaid–who, on the basis of their role as an integral part of a regularly scheduled program, activity or service, are responsible for a child’s welfare or who has direct contact with children.
- Employees of a social services agency who have direct contact with children in the course of employment.
- Police officers and law enforcement officials.
- Emergency medical services providers certified by the Department of Health
- Public library employees who have direct contact with children in the course of their employment.
- Individuals supervised or managed by a person listed above, who have direct contact with children in the course of their employment.
- Independent contractors who have direct contact with children.
- Attorneys affiliated with an agency, institution, organization or other entity, including a school or regularly established religious organization, that are responsible for the care, supervision, guidance or control of children.
- Foster parents.
- Adult family members who are responsible for a child’s welfare and provide services to a child in a family living home, community home for individuals with an intellectual disability or host home for children which are subject to supervision or licensure by the department under Articles IX and X of the Human Services Code.
One of the obstacles to the reporting of suspected abuse across all spectrums is the fear of ruining someone’s reputation over a false allegation, according to Mission Kids Executive Director Leslie Slingsby.
“Unfortunately…many professionals have been trained that if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all for fear of a defamation of character lawsuit,” she said. “This is not acceptable when it comes to the safety of our children.”
“Luckily, we now have Act 168 of 2014 to indemnify and require those schools to notify future employers,” Slingsby added.
Act 168 of 2014, colloquially known as the “Pass the Trash” law, amended the Pennsylvania Public School Code to require that extensive employment history checks be completed prior to the hiring of anyone who will have direct contact with children.
Turning a blind eye to child abuse is not only a potential crime for those who are considered mandated reporters. Under the PA Child Protective Services Law of 1975, any “perpetrator of child abuse for failure to act” can be charged along with the person physically committing the abuse. That person can be a parent, a current or former spouse, a current or former boyfriend or girlfriend or anyone 18 or older who’s responsible for a child’s welfare or who resides in the same home as the child.
According to the website PreventChildAbusePA.org–which is part of the Prevent Child Abuse America nonprofit network–once mandated reporters suspect abuse they must make an immediate report to the state’s ChildLine hotline, either online at www.compass.state.pa.us/cwis or by calling 1-800-932-0313.
After making the report to ChildLine, mandated reporters are then required to notify the person in charge of the institution, school, facility or agency, or the designated agent of the person in charge, of the suspected abuse.
The law requires that mandated reporters identify themselves and provide contact information, so that if clarification or additional information is needed, a caseworker can contact them.
The identity of the person making the report is kept confidential, with the exception of being released to law enforcement officials and/or the district attorney’s office.
Penalties for a mandated reporter who willfully fails to report child abuse range from a second degree misdemeanor to a second degree felony. In some cases mandated reporters may also be required to testify in a civil or criminal court case.
While the obligations may seem daunting for those who might find themselves in the position of being a mandated reporter, there are resources offered by the state, Mission Kids and other organizations whose websites are linked herein can and do lend support.