By Linda Crockett, Director of Safe Communities safecommunitiespa.org
In the state of Pennsylvania, some adults are considered mandated reporters of suspected child abuse.
These include individuals holding some specific roles (such as doctors, clergy, school employees and others) but also any adult (age 18+) who comes into contact with children in the course of their work or professional practice, or an individual, paid or unpaid, who, on the basis of their role as an integral part of a regularly scheduled program, activity or service, is a person responsible for the care, guidance, supervision or control of children.
Many adult volunteers in churches and youth serving organizations are mandated reporters. Although this inclusion of volunteers as mandated reporters took place in 2014, our Safe Communities organization continues to work with many churches and youth serving organizations that have not caught up with this major change.
A point of confusion for some mandated, and non-mandated reporters, is that one does not need to be certain or have evidence that abuse has occurred in order to make a report. Like many other states, Pennsylvania uses the term “reasonable cause to suspect” that a child has been abused as one of the thresholds that trigger a mandated report. This does not mean a reporter is to investigate or be certain abuse has occurred. Determination of that is the job of case workers from Child Protective Services that investigate suspected child abuse, in conjunction with law enforcement.
“Reasonable cause to suspect” is not precisely defined under the law. A general rule of thumb is that it is more than a “gut feeling” but less than a certainty. It takes into consideration things like what you know about the situation and context, behavioral red flags that are possible indicators of various types of abuse, what the child or others have told you, and additional factors.
Pennsylvania’s standard for reporting suspected abuse is that the reporter shall make an “immediate” report. Like “reasonable cause to suspect” immediate is not precisely defined under the law but a rule of thumb is 24 hours at the latest, or much sooner if the child is at imminent risk of suffering more abuse if you delay reporting.
When the reporter knows and respects the alleged offender, which is not uncommon in churches and organizations, it can cloud judgement of whether abuse could be possible. Using a reasonable cause standard when this is the case is to think about whether a neutral person who had the same information you did about the child would find it reasonable to suspect abuse may have occurred. If in doubt – report it.
There is a world of difference between making a “false” report (which is a crime) and making a report in good faith when you suspect abuse (in which the reporter is protected under the law). False reports are rare, and they typically are an attempt by one individual to ‘retaliate’ against another for some reason.
The basis to report in Pennsylvania is that a mandated reporter shall make a report of suspected child abuse (in accordance with Section 6313) if the mandated reporter has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse under any of the following circumstances:
- The mandated reporter comes into contact with the child in the course of employment, occupation and practice of a profession or through a regularly scheduled program, activity or service;
- The mandated reporter is directly responsible for the care, supervision, guidance or training of the child, or is affiliated with an agency, institution, organization, school, or other entity that is directly responsible for the care, supervision, guidance or training of the child
- A person makes a specific disclosure to the mandated reporter that an identifiable child is the victim of child abuse; or
- An individual 14 years of age or older makes a specific disclosure to the mandated reporter that the individual has committed child abuse. The child is not required to come before the mandated reporter for the reporter to make a report of suspected child abuse. This was also a major change enacted in 2014. Of course, keeping children safe from harm is the responsibility of all caring adults in a community. You don’t have to be a mandated reporter to make a report of suspected or disclosed child abuse. Anyone concerned about possible abuse can make a confidential report by calling Childline at 1-800-932-0313. Learn more at Pennsylvania’s KeepKidsSafe website http://keepkidssafe.pa.gov/