Child Abuse: Mandatory Reporting

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 What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse refers to the physical, psychological, or sexual mistreatment of a child or minor (persons under 18 in most states or 16 in some states). All 50 states have laws that strictly prohibit child abuse and prescribe severe legal penalties for persons who commit abuse.

Child abuse can involve a wide range of conduct and may include:

  • Physical abuse of a child, including striking, hitting, hitting with a weapon, strangling, choking, forcefully grabbing, or other forms of physical violence
  • Psychological abuse of a child, such as verbally abusing them, demeaning them, taunting or teasing them, insulting them, or threatening them with physical violence
  • Sexual abuse of a child, including touching them inappropriately, exposing them to sexual images or materials, or engaging in sexual acts with them (it is against the law for adults to engage in sexual activities with minors or children)

Child abuse is against the law, and conviction can lead to various criminal consequences, including fines and jail time. It can also lead to other consequences, such as losing child custody or visitation rights.

What is Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse? Who Does it Apply To?

All 50 U.S. states have child abuse laws that protect children from instances of child abuse. These laws also include reporting requirements that make it mandatory (required) for certain persons to report any potential instances of child abuse that they discover.

Child abuse can have a significant effect on children’s development, as well as their physical and emotional welfare. Certain professionals must report any instance where they suspect child abuse has occurred to help protect children. This is because they are in positions where they have a duty of care to protect the safety, health, and well-being of the children in their care, and by law, that includes protection against child abuse.

Also, they often interact with children or minors in ways that can reveal evidence of child abuse, which puts them in a good position to catch instances of abuse. For example, while examining a child for a routine check-up, a doctor might see multiple bruises or scars on the child’s body. These are often signs that the child has been abused. The doctor would be required to file a child abuse report.

The persons whom all states oblige to report suspected child abuse include:

  • Teachers, principals, and other school personnel
  • Child care providers
  • Social workers
  • County child support enforcers
  • Law enforcement personnel
  • Mental health practitioners, such as counselors and therapists
  • Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers
  • Dentists
  • Medical examiners and coroners

In some jurisdictions, the following people are also required to make reports if they suspect child abuse:

  • Attorneys
  • Clergy leaders
  • Foster parents
  • Camp and youth center workers and volunteers
  • Film and photograph processors
  • Substance abuse counselors
  • Probation and parole officers

In some jurisdictions, mandatory reporting also includes the duty to report child neglect and child abandonment.

When child abuse is suspected, a report should be made to either law enforcement agencies (the police) or child protective services. The states vary concerning what must be contained in the report, but typically it should include important information such as the child’s name, the children’s parents and address, the child’s age, the name of the person suspected to have committed the abuse, the nature, and extent of the child’s injury if one was observed, and the facts and circumstances that led them to suspect that the child has been abused.

All states have provisions in the law to maintain the confidentiality of abuse records. Most states specifically protect the reporter’s identity – it cannot be revealed to the suspected abuser.

Are There Legal Consequences for Failing to Report Child Abuse?

Failing to report child abuse can result in legal consequences for people or agencies required to report suspected abuse. Failure to report child abuse can be classified as a crime if the person is legally required to do so.

A first-time failure to report child abuse is generally classified as a misdemeanor crime under most state laws. This is a less serious crime, punishable by criminal fines and up to a year in jail. Misdemeanor fines can range from $500 to $5,000, depending on the state.

In some states, child abuse reporting requirements violation can result in more serious felony charges, especially for severe situations. Felonies are punishable by larger fines and a minimum of one year of prison time. Arizona, Washington, Florida, and Minnesota are examples of states that sometimes impose felony charges on persons for failure to report child abuse. Also, repeat offenses can sometimes elevate an initial misdemeanor charge into a felony charge.

Finally, someone who fails to report child abuse can also become subject to a private civil lawsuit. This is especially common if the failure to report the abuse results in death or serious injury to the child.

What is “False Reporting of Child Abuse”?

More than half of the 50 U.S. states also make it a crime for a person to file a false report of child abuse. False reporting of child abuse occurs when a person files a report of child abuse knowing that the report is false or contains false information.

False reporting is considered a serious crime since a person accused of child abuse can suffer major consequences, including jail time, significant fines, loss of visitation rights, or loss of custody of the child (and often other children).

Filing a false report of child abuse is classified as a felony crime in Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. In some states, false reporting is classified as either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the seriousness of the accusations and various other factors. As with failure to report, filing a false report of child abuse can be elevated to felony charges with repeat offenses.

It can be difficult to know when to file a report of child abuse and when to wait and see if any more evidence crops up. Know that as long as you have reasonable grounds for suspecting abuse is occurring or has occurred, you cannot be accused of falsely reporting abuse, even if it turns out that no abuse occurred.

Moreover, fear of impacting a suspect’s life with a potentially untrue claim of child abuse is not a reason to hesitate if you truly believe a child is being abused. If you have reason to believe it is true and have found the necessary evidence to file a report, you should file it even if you know how much it will impact the alleged abuser’s life.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Mandatory Reporting Requirements for Child Abuse?

Filing a child abuse report is a serious matter that can majorly impact all persons involved. If you suspect that a child has been or is being abused, it is in your best interests to contact a lawyer for advice, especially if you are one of the persons required by law to make such a report. An experienced family lawyer in your area can assist you in filing a report to ensure that you follow reporting requirements.

Also, any time a child abuse report is filed with authorities, it can lead to a criminal or civil trial. You may wish to retain your lawyer’s services if such a trial becomes necessary.


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