What Happens When Educators Fail to Report Child Abuse (Hint: Not Much) - Voice of San Diego

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What Happens When Educators Fail to Report Child Abuse (Hint: Not Much)

In public schools, educators and other employees are required by state law to report potential abuse of children to police or child welfare authorities. Yet, it turns out, not much happens to mandated reporters who don’t report. We put together this FAQ to explain the requirements of the law and how it’s playing out in schools across San Diego County.

Desks inside a Perkins Elementary School classroom / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Sweetwater Union High School District officials received an email with detailed information about ongoing sexual abuse of a student by a teacher, but did nothing. La Jolla High School officials believed a teacher’s touching of a student rose to the level of criminal behavior, but don’t appear to have called in Child Protective Services or San Diego police.

In those cases and others we’ve uncovered as part of our ongoing investigation into sexual misconduct in public schools, educators and school officials who are required by state law to report potential abuse of children to police or child welfare authorities didn’t fulfill those obligations.

Yet, it turns out, not much happens to mandated reporters who don’t report.

In San Diego and many regions across the state, there have been virtually no prosecutions of failure-to-report cases within the last two decades. That means the state mandated-reporting requirement has become more of a suggestion than a legal obligation.

We put together this FAQ to explain the requirements of the law and how it’s playing out in schools across San Diego County.

Who is a mandated reporter in schools?

Classified school employees, administrators, teachers and aides, athletic coaches and other public school-employed supervisors are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse on school campuses.

That means if an employee suspects a child has been harmed, state law requires that person to report the suspected abuse to local law enforcement or Child Welfare Services through its Child Abuse Hotline, regardless of whether there’s concrete evidence that a crime took place. These reporters can also submit a mail-in form to that department within 36 hours of their knowledge.

Parents and guardians of school children have the right to file a complaint against anyone they suspect has engaged in abuse or neglect of a child and community members are not required to provide their name when making a report, according to the California Department of Education.

What type of training do mandated reporters receive?

California schools require employees to complete mandated child abuse reporter training prior to working with school children.

State law requires school districts to train teachers on what they need to know to identify child abuse, their responsibilities as mandated reporters and the consequences of ignoring signs of child neglect or abuse, according to the California Department of Education’s child abuse reporting guidelines.

In San Diego, a majority of public school districts – 34 of the 42—and more than one dozen charter schools use the same online training program through the San Diego County Risk Management Joint Powers Authority, said Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Office of Education.

“Among school districts more generally, each district keeps their own records on mandated reporter training,” Watson said. “Those that don’t use the JPA training are either doing in-house training or using an outside trainer.”

These required trainings provide educators with ways to identify any signs of child abuse – including physical, sexual or emotional abuse and neglect and emphasize that educators don’t have to determine whether their suspicions or allegations passed along to them are valid, but are required to report if “child abuse or neglect is reasonably suspected or if a pupil shares information with a mandated reporter leading him/her to believe abuse or neglect has taken place.”

What are the signs of child abuse that school workers are required to report?

The California Department of Education’s Child Abuse and Reporting Guidelines outline four different categories of child abuse that must be reported by mandated reporters across the state: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.

The department’s guidelines say “red flags for abuse and neglect are often identified by observing a child’s behavior at school, recognizing physical signs and observations of dynamics during routine interactions with certain adults.”

Behavioral signs that a student might be a victim of abuse could include a talkative student who suddenly becomes quiet and withdrawn, a student who seems on alert, as if waiting for something bad to happen, a student who shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements or seems afraid to go home.

Physical signs of abuse can include suspicious bruises, injuries that appear to have a pattern, such as from a hand or belt, or students wearing clothing intended to cover up injuries, according to the Department of Education.

Signs of emotional abuse and neglect can include extremes in behavior, excessive withdrawal, fear or anxiety, unattachment from a parent or caregiver, acting inappropriately adult-like (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile, dirty or ill-fitting clothes, consistent bad hygiene, untreated illnesses of physical injuries, frequent lack of supervision or if the student is left alone in unsafe situations or environments or is frequently late or missing from school.

In identifying sexual abuse, educators are advised to look for signs in trouble walking or sitting, displaying knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to one’s age, making strong efforts to avoid a specific person without obvious reason, not wanting to change clothes in front of other or participate in physical activities, and identified STD or pregnancy of a student, especially under the age of 14 or if a student runs away from home.

An educator or other mandated reporter does not have to be physically present at the time of the abuse, witness the abuse or have definite proof that a child has been abused.

Under the law, a reporter must relay “reasonable suspicion” that a child has been harmed, meaning “that it is reasonable for a person to entertain a suspicion of child abuse or neglect, based upon facts that could cause a reasonable person, in a like position, drawing, when appropriate, on his or her training and experience, to suspect child abuse or neglect,” according to the CDE’s guidelines.

What agencies are school district staff and administrators required to report to?

Teachers and other school employees are legally required to report suspected emotional or physical abuse to a local police or sheriff’s department or county welfare department, such as Child Welfare Services. In other counties across the state, a county probation department may also accept reports. Reports to school police do not meet the mandated reporting requirement.

Lilian Nguyen, a spokesperson for the San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, said social workers at Child Welfare Services do not typically screen the person who’s reporting suspected abuse.

Nguyen said trained social workers ask reporters “a whole lot of questions,” including the child’s demographics, who the child lives with at home, other adults who can care for the child, what category of abuse the harm against the child may fall under and whether there are any other concerns of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

The answers to those questions determines whether the described abuse requires an in-person investigation, Nguyen said. Those cases are assigned accordingly, and cross-reported to law enforcement to review and determine a proper response time.

Then, Nguyen said, “it falls on child welfare to do the screening,” but social workers may follow up with the reporting party before starting an investigation to ask if any new information has arisen. “A lot of the time we get additional or new information when we follow up with reporters,” Nguyen said.

Child Welfare Services is required to cross-report with law enforcement, and vice-versa.

What happens when mandated reporters fail to report?

Educators who fail to report suspected child abuse can face a misdemeanor resulting in up to six months in jail, a fine up to $1,000 or both.

Yet since at least 2002, San Diego County has not prosecuted any failure-to-report cases. San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said neither her office nor the city attorney’s office has ever received a complaint of a mandated reporter failing to report child abuse.

On that front, San Diego is not alone. Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties prosecuted fewer than a dozen cases of failures to report suspected abuse between 2012 to 2017, according to the San Bernardino Sun. The Santa Clara County district attorney’s office told VOSD it received 17 complaints of failure-to-mandate cases since 2002, but prosecuted just one principal at an elementary school who failed to act on knowledge.

What is San Diego County doing to make sure the law is followed?

Stephan said that though she’s never prosecuted anyone for failing to report abuse, she is open to doing so if a complaint is made to her office and there’s enough evidence to support a prosecution.

She said anyone with information on mandated reporters failing to report abuse should contact her office – even if they don’t have evidence to offer, because those educators accused of failing to report child abuse will be kept in a database that can be referenced if there is a repeated offense.

Stephan said the law on mandated reporting includes several loopholes that allow for innocent explanations as to why something wasn’t reported, and her team is exploring whether there is a need to strengthen the law through state legislation.

Stephan said her office distributed pamphlets to all San Diego County school districts to increase awareness of the mandated reporting law prior to the 2018-2019 school year.

“Mandated reporters cannot be held civilly or criminally for making a report,” those pamphlets read.  “However, it is a crime not to report.”

California’s child abuse hotline is (800) 344-6000. San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency child abuse hotline is (858) 560-2191.

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