July 30, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
When it comes to suspected child abuse, teachers are among the many “mandated reporters.” That is, if they have reason to believe a child is being abused or neglected, they’re required by law to report their suspicions to the nearest child welfare agency. Failure to do so can result in the loss of a mandated reporter’s job. As I’ve said before, that none-too-subtle threat is one of the major reasons for the vast over-reporting to CPS agencies.
So it’s interesting to read this article (We Are Teachers, 11/18/19). It’s written by one Brette Sember, a teacher who’s instructing other teachers on what to do when they suspect abuse or neglect of a child. Most of it is fairly sensible. So, for example, readers are urged to not take the lead in investigating the case, but to simply report their suspicions to CPS or the CPS liaison at the school.
But then there’s the not-so-sensible about the piece. For example,
“More than three million children in the US are abused each year.”
Uh, no there aren’t. Not even close. In fact, there are about 3.2 million reports made to CPS agencies of suspected abuse and/or neglect, but about 80% of those are determined to be unfounded without even an investigation being conducted. That’s according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families that collects data from state child welfare agencies nationwide. And the great majority of reports that are founded are not of abuse, but neglect. About 180,000 kids per year are found to have been abused.
So the linked-to article is written by a teacher who failed to educate herself about the most basic elements of her chosen topic.
The author’s first piece of advice is this:
“You don’t have to be absolutely certain that abuse is taking place.”
That’s of course true, but it also reflects an attitude of “err on the side of reporting.” Such an attitude doesn’t come as a surprise, given the penalties faced by mandated reporters for failing to report suspected abuse or neglect. What’s the problem? One is that CPS agencies are chronically understaffed, so the more reports they receive, the more personnel are required to field the calls and the fewer there are to deal with kids who actually need their help. The other is that more reports mean more state intervention into the lives of parents and families, whether or not it’s needed. The state’s heavy hand is rarely welcomed by parents and the mere fact that the complaint turns out to be without merit hardly lightens the blow. Even an unfounded report lets parents know that Big Brother is watching them.
It's a problem of which the writer seems blissfully unaware. Item #7 on her list tells teachers to
“Designate one staff member to communicate with the family.”
She adds that parents often aren’t happy to have been reported to CPS and that, when they telephone the school, they should be told that their communications aren’t confidential. Fair enough. But what Sember fails to mention is anything regarding parental rights.
Now, I don’t know the law on this subject, but I suspect that a “mandated reporter” who makes a report of suspected child abuse or neglect to a child welfare agency can legally be construed as an agent of that state entity. That would be particularly true of a public school teacher who’s already employed by the state. If so, all constitutional protections for individuals vis-à-vis the state are effective when the parent talks to the school about the report that implicates them. Again if so, that means Miranda warnings should be given at the start of any conversation with the parent. My guess is that they never are.
But in Sember’s article, there’s not a word about parental rights or the fact that the mandated reporter may be considered an agent of a state entity that may want to take the child from the parent. Given that Sember is trying to educate teachers on their responsibilities in the child protection system, I call that a remarkably negligent omission.