Who is required to report suspected child sex abuse?by Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
WINONA, Minn. — Rice County and Faribault officials investigating the allegations of criminal sexual misconduct by Lynn Seibel, a former teacher at Shattuck-St. Mary's boarding school, have questioned whether teachers and school officials reported the allegations as required by law.
Although school officials claim to have reported them to police, the discrepancy between their accounts and that of authorities, points to confusion about such requirements.
In Minnesota, teachers, doctors and other professionals who have frequent contact with children are required by law to report even suspected child abuse. But there are no state guidelines for training so called "mandated reporters" and the process they use to file a report varies.
State law requires teachers or others required to report abuse to immediately call their local police or child protective service agency if they know or have reason to believe a child is being neglected or physically or sexually abused, or has been in the last three years. They also have to file a written report within 72 hours.
But in practice, most suspected abuse goes unreported, Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said. That's because people required to notify authorities often are unaware of the law, fear civil liability or are not properly trained to identify potential abuse.
"There's absolutely, I think, no reason not to make that report, given the immunity from liability as long as you're doing it in good faith," Beaumaster said.
Minnesota is one of 11 states with state-supervised but county-administered child protection services. Most Minnesota counties, including Rice County, have centralized hotlines that teachers, doctors, other professionals and the general public can call to file a report. Beaumaster said keeping the process at the county level helps streamline investigations of alleged child abuse.
"If you were calling it into Saint Paul and you're in Koochiching County, and they have to figure out 'Well, who do I call in Koochiching County to do this? ' or 'Who's the closest police department of sheriff's department?' that would obviously cause delays," Beaumaster said.
The number of child abuse reports in Minnesota has remained steady for the last 10 years, according to Erin Sullivan Sutton of the state's Department of Human Services. In 2011, Minnesota counties, and the Leech Lake and the White Earth Bands of Ojibwe assessed 17,716 reports of child abuse involving 24,962 children.
The amount training teachers and other professionals receive also varies by county and profession.
The state offers an online training curriculum but doctors, teachers and other professionals are not required to take them, Sullivan Sutton said.
"We developed an online training and sent it to various professional groups a couple of years ago," said Sutton, the department's assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services. "But we don't have a way to track who does what training for whom."
To fill that gap, some child advocates are turning their attention to training undergraduate and graduate students who are studying to be nurses, teachers and police officers.
At Winona State University earlier this week, about 30 students filed into a class to learn how to spot child maltreatment and abuse and become advocates for children.
As they split into groups, instructor Amy Russell, deputy director of the National Child Protection Training Center, handed each group a news article. The center trains about 20,000 child protection professionals each year.
"These are all actual child maltreatment cases," Russell told them. "What I would like for you to do it take a look at the theories identified in the book and figure out, does it actually make sense?"
After a few minutes, students regrouped to discuss their cases.
"Our case was about a 41-year-old father who decided to discipline his daughter by duct taping her feet and hands together and locking her in a metal dog cage while dripping water on her for 20 minutes," said Morgan Howe, a first-year college student who is studying social work.
Howe, 18, also works as an office manager at a day care and because of that is already required by law to report suspected harm to children. Last summer, she filed her first report of suspected child abuse.
"It was interesting to see what you actually had to go through, like, physically with all the paper work and telling every little detail that the kid had told you about stuff," she said. "I feel that everyone should have to."
But even though some states have universal mandatory reporter laws, child advocates say enforcement of the laws is weak.
In Minnesota, failure to report suspected child abuse is a misdemeanor. If a child dies, the professional responsible for reporting suspected abuse could be charged with a felony and, if convicted, be sentenced to two years in prison or ordered to pay a $4,000 fine.
Despite the shortcomings in enforcement, changes in cultural attitudes toward reporting suspected abuse are encouraging to Teresa Huizar, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Children's Alliance. She cites the case of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, recently sentenced to 30 years in prison for child abuse, as one example of a high-profile case that increases public awareness of the responsibilities professionals have to inform authorities.
"I'm loathe to say there's any silver cloud to the Sandusky case or to the Catholic Church abuse scandals, but these huge, multi-victim cases of the last 10 years have really turned the public attention to this issue about the failure to report," Huizar said. "I think public tolerance for it has dramatically decreased and I think you're going to see more prosecutors willing to bring these cases to trial and I think you're going to see more jury convictions."
In the last year alone, 19 states have made some attempt to adjust their mandatory reporting laws. Huizar expects more elected officials across the nation to take up the issue this legislative session.
INDICATORS OF ABUSE
The following are indicators of physical, mental and sexual abuse that should be reported:
• An injury that appears to be non-accidental in nature
• A physical injury resulting from hazardous conditions not corrected by a parent or guardian • Significant threats indicating there is substantial risk of physical abuse or mental injury
• Excessive sucking or rocking
• Destructive or antisocial behavior
• Sleep disorders
• Inhibition of play
• Behavioral extremes (passive or aggressive)
• Some types of developmental delays
• Substance abuse
• Obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors and phobias
• Fear of, or unwillingness to be near a particular place or person
• Regressive behaviors such as crying excessively, sucking, rocking, bed- or pants-wetting
• Withdrawal from social relationships
• Ongoing anger
• Sexually acting out with other children
• Playing out what happened to them with dolls or another person
• Unusual interest in the private body parts of other children
• Inappropriate sexual knowledge for the child's developmental or chronological age.
- Morning Edition, 10/24/2012, 8:24 a.m.