Sanctuary for the Abused
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
General Information on Mandated Reporting
from Douglas Larsen
You can call for help and stay in control
When I advise someone to call their local agency for help, the most common concern is about Mandated Reporting. 'What if they report me? What will happen if I'm turned over to Social Services?' Here are some guidelines so you understand Mandated Reporting a little bit better. Remember, the specific laws will vary from state to state. Don't use this article as your last resource -- use it as your first resource, so you will know how to find out more. Any examples I use are based on Minnesota law as I understand it. The laws in your state may be different; if you live in Minnesota, remember that I'm not a lawyer, and I could be wrong. Always call the agency in question to find out for sure.
What is "Mandated Reporting?"
In general, Mandated Reporting laws say that anyone who deals with children -- teachers, daycare workers, social workers, women's advocates, children's advocates, and so on -- are required by law to report any child abuse they find out about. The law also provides penalties for failure to report. For example, if a child tells his daycare worker that his dad is beating him up, the daycare worker is required to call Child Protection services. Child Protection is part of your county Social Services department. In Minnesota, the daycare worker has to call Child Protection and make a verbal report, and then follow it up with a written report.
Mandated Reporters don't just respond when a kid tells them something. If properly trained, they can spot signs of abuse -- suspicious bruises, signs of neglect, and behaviors that might suggest that the child has been abused, either sexually, physically or emotionally. I knew a remarkable Child Advocate who could walk through a gymnasium filled with children. When she got to the other side, could tell the school counselor about ten or fifteen children who deserved a closer look, and provide details as to why.
When children email me and ask for help or advice, I ask them if they have a favorite teacher they can go to. This is because teachers are also Mandated Reporters, and they tend to be well-trained. Many legislatures pass Mandated Reporter laws, but never appropriate money to pay for education, training or enforcement. As a result, many people are technically Mandated Reporters but don't know it, or don't know what to look for, or don't know what to do if they run across signs of abuse. Teachers are more likely to be properly trained than most.
Mandated Reporting laws have had their share of controversy. Child Advocates tend to support them as a good thing. Women's Advocates are more wary, because a battered woman with children may be penalized just because her batterer is endangering the children as well. The fear of losing custody of her children may make women more reluctant to go to a Women's Center for help, because women's advocates are Mandated Reporters too.
So What Happens?
All Mandated Reporters are required to report child abuse, which means that Child Protection will get involved. This does not necessarily mean that they will swoop down, violate everyone's privacy, and embroil everyone in a "Lifetime Movie Of The Week" nightmare. And despite what you may see on "Judging Amy," Child Protection workers are generally very reluctant to remove a child from his or her home.
Usually, the problems are due to ignorance or economic factors. The Child Protection worker will enroll the parent(s) in a free class that teaches parenting skills. Or the worker will tell the parent about programs and resources that the parent was not aware of, but is eligible for. The worker may recommend counseling, and provide the names of counselors the parent can afford.
The worker is usually also aware of the difference between an Offending Parent and a Non-offending parent. While they can be tough on an Offending Parent when necessary, they are generally supportive and helpful to the Non-offending parent. As long as the Non-offending parent is taking serious steps to get out of a dangerous situation, the Child Protection worker is likely to be a helper and an ally, not a threat.
How can you find out?
You'll notice that I've been using words like "generally" and "usually" and similar words. That's because, as I said, laws vary, and people vary. But on page two, I'll tell you how to find out everything you need to know.
Here's the main thing to remember: these laws, and the people covered by these laws, are there to help protect vulnerable people, especially children. If I suggest that you call a Women's Center or a Child Abuse Prevention Center, I am talking about an agency that has highly trained advocates governed by a strong set of ethics. They will not lie to you; they will not trick you; they will not set a trap for you. They are there to help you.
So, really, it's very simple. To find out about the Mandated Reporting laws, call the agency and ask them. I'm not kidding. They will tell you the truth. They will give lots of details. They will even give advice. See, they want you to come in and get help. And they know that the only real way to help you is to earn your trust -- legitimately earn your trust.
So they won't lie to you. They won't ask, "Why are you asking this??" They will just tell you the truth about the Mandated Reporting laws. Women's advocates will even tell you how to get help without triggering the Mandated Reporting laws -- not because they don't care about the children, but because they know it's the only way some women will ever come in to get help for themselves and their children.
Some people worry -- "They'll use Caller I.D." Well, using Caller I.D. is a violation of the agency's ethics and a re-victimization of the victim. So I would be extraordinarily surprised if any agency uses it. The agency workers know that the only help that ever works is help that is undertaken voluntarily by the caller.
And in any event, you can call and ask if they use Caller I.D. They'll tell you the truth. You can ask all about Mandated Reporting, and even if they recognize your voice or something similarly far-fetched, they will still have no reason to file a report.
These departments have heavy case-loads, and the government cuts in funding mean that the Child Protection departments are probably understaffed, overworked, and with fewer resources than before. Before they file a report, they will need specifics -- the name of the perpetrator, the name and age of the victim, the address, and specific details about the abuse. If you call for information about Mandated Reporting, you will have provided none of these. Besides, you could be calling for a friend, not yourself.
Children, not adults
Sometimes people will ask me, 'I'm nineteen now, but it happened when I was a child, so will they have to report it?' No -- although again, you should ask, and they will tell you the truth. Generally speaking, the laws are established to help children who have no rights. If you are now eighteen or older, you could choose to report it yourself. If you choose not to, that is your right as an adult. So the agencies will help you all they can, but they will probably not be required to report.
When we train volunteer women's advocates, we tell them that they are now Mandated Reporters. Always, half of them become very concerned because years before, a friend confided something to them, and made them promise to keep it a secret. I find it revealing and appalling how many times I hear about that. But again, if their friend is an adult, then their friend can choose to report it or not, and the advocate-in-training is probably not required to report it.
Also, even though the laws don't necessarily say so, the age of the victim may make a difference in the attitude of Mandated Reporting. If the victim is four years old, the Mandated Reporter's duty is very clear and urgent. If the victim is seventeen years old, however, their wishes can be considered a little more. It may be OK for the Mandated Reporter to call Child Protection for advice without providing the name, to find out how much latitude and control to allow the victim. Each case is different, and the details can only be sorted out and decided by the Child Protection worker.
In the end, remember that you can call the agency in question, and ask them about their policies. They will tell you the truth. They won't lie to you or try to trap you. If they ask your name, you can say, "I'm not ready to give my name yet," and they will accept that.
They are there to help you. They are there to treat you right. They know that the only way to do that is to legitimately earn your trust, by always telling you the truth. They also want to give you as much control as possible, so they will listen to your opinions and your desires, and help you achieve them whenever possible.
Please call them. It will be the best call you ever make.