This guest blog is co-authored by experts in mandatory reporting of child sex abuse.
Dr. Franne Sippel, EdD is a Licensed Psychologist and co-owner of Northern Plains Psychological Associates in Aberdeen, SD and co-host of the mental health podcast, Shrink Rap the Podcast. She serves on the Mandatory Reporter Task Force for the Center for the Prevention on Child Maltreatment in SD.
Dr. Karyl Meister holds a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision from the University of Arkansas and is currently pursuing a second PhD in Forensic Psychology from Walden University. Nancy Guardia is a clinical social worker and a member of the National Association of Social Workers and of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.
Institutional or chain of command child abuse reporting may require the Mandatory Reporter (MR) to report suspected child maltreatment to their supervisor or a designee rather than directly to CPS or law enforcement.
On June 22, 2012, Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team, was convicted of sexually assaulting ten boys. Though top administrators had knowledge of the abuse, they failed to report to authorities, allowing Sandusky to continue to perpetrate on young boys for more than a decade.
Recognizing how institutional reporting harmed children, in 2014 Pennsylvania eliminated chain of command reporting and designated all school employees and volunteers MRs. Now when an MR suspects child maltreatment, they must report directly to Childline and to the person in charge of the institution, school, facility, or the person in charge’s designee.
Pennsylvania also provides whistleblower protection for MRs who make good faith child maltreatment reports. If the MR is fired or discriminated against regarding hire, tenure, compensation, etc. and a ruling is found in favor of the plaintiff, the MR may be reinstated with back pay. The Penn State scandal highlighted how direct reporting may have prevented decades of further harm to children.
Institutional reporting is still legal in a minority of states. However, because state reporting laws are so varied and confusing, some states still allow chain of command reporting within hospitals, schools (private or public) and organizations. For instance, Massachusetts General Law (MGL) Chapter 119, Section 51A(a) states: “If a mandated reporter is a member of the staff of a medical or other public or private institution, school or facility, they may instead notify the person in charge … who shall become responsible for notifying the Department of Children and Families (DCF).”
Chain of command reporting hurts children and the MRs tasked with protecting them:
Chain of command reporting places MR employees at greater risk of employer retaliation. MRs have been fired and blacklisted after making a child abuse report. They may be viewed as a troublemaker and as disloyal to the institution. State laws protecting MRs from adverse employment actions are not present in every state and/or may be unenforced.
Chain of command reporting may decrease child abuse reporting. There is an inherent conflict of interest when institutions are allowed to weigh the damage to their organization’s reputation/liability costs against their reporting duty. If top level administrators delay or fail to report, abuse may continue for years, causing vulnerable children further preventable harm. MRs may be discouraged from reporting to preserve the reputation of the institution.
Chain of command reporting compromises the report’s validity. A report is already second hand when the MR relays the information the first time to the police. But in an institutional setting, the MR may have to relay the report to a designee who then must relay to a higher up administrator who then must call law enforcement. Further, not all states or settings require a written report.
MRs who receive abuse information are in the best position to give accurate details. They should be able to make a direct report to CPS or the police. Direct reporting makes it less likely that abused children be interviewed multiple times and makes it more likely that law enforcement and/or CPS will accurately determine safety concerns and resulting outcomes.
Chain of command reporting can attract predators. Predators are drawn to organizations where they have easy access to children. When an organization fails to report and simply moves the alleged predator to another location, this may send an unintended invitation to other predators. Moving predators and failing to report gives predators the opportunity to perpetrate on large numbers of children for years.
Chain of command reporting may lead to broader liability for an institution. In Landstrom v Barrington (1990), a teacher reported abuse to her principal, who then made the report to child protection services. When the report proved to be unfounded, the parents sued the school district rather than the teacher. Though the district was found not liable, the district was tied up in court for three years.
Chain of command reporting is a common denominator in many child abuse sex scandals. Promoting a culture of silence, institutional reporting places the brand of the institution above children’s safety. It is a common denominator in the following sexual abuse scandals: the Catholic Church; USA Olympic Sports; the Boy Scouts; the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Military.
The demonstrated ineffectiveness of institutional reporting warrants sustained changes and accountability. Some suggestions include:
• Establish a national data system within and between states for child offenders who have a history of sexual misconduct. This allows for greater oversight when an alleged abuser crosses state lines. No more “passing the trash” from one state/organization to the next.
• Classify all those who have regular contact with children as MRs and expand the definition of “school” to include all colleges and universities, both public and private.
• Eliminate chain of command reporting in all states and settings and require direct reporting to CPS or law enforcement within 24 hours as well as to their superior if they work in an organizational setting. Further, protect reporting MRs by establishing antiretaliation laws with enforcement statutes in all states.
• Require nationwide annual child sexual abuse prevention education in schools, helping students and staff identify and report suspected abuse.
In addition to these changes, states should mandate that insurance carriers cover negligent failure to prevent child sex abuse in organizations. States should require insurance carriers to conduct an annual state-of-the-art ‘child protection audit’ each year. If the organization fails the audit, insurance carriers should deny coverage until the organization has cured it (Hamilton, 2019, para. 7).
Also, the Safe Sport Act and S .2330 should be further evaluated for efficacy to help determine whether the Safe Sport Act could be expanded and modified to protect all children in the public domain.
Regular training should be required for all MRs, including training on immunity laws, ways to prevent and deal with retaliation and how to identify and report child maltreatment. Our research demonstrated that MRs who had formal training were more likely to report suspected abuse and less likely to face retaliation.