When Mandated Reporters Fail to Report

As part of the training for school psychologists, we are required to complete a unit on Mandating Reporting regulations for our state (in my case, Illinois). School psychology is among a group of professions that are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect; others in this category include teachers, doctors, clergy, camp counselors, nurses, and more. One of the important points about being a mandated reporter is that we simply report, we do not investigate. This came up in many forms during class discussions, and was emphasized in the state training program. If we suspect a child is being abused, we do not ask the child probing questions to try to get to the bottom of things or even attempt to determine whether or not there even was abuse; all of that is the job of the Department of Children and Family Services and they have employees who are trained in such matters. If we have a reasonable suspicion that something might have happened, we report it. This is an important distinction, because school psychologists work in a position of trust within the entire school community (including staff, parents, teachers, and, first and foremost of course, students) and it would be nearly impossible to maintain trust – let alone confidentiality – if we had to perform the roles of both confidant and detective/law enforcement. So in that sense, knowing the clear and straightforward requirement to report any sign of suspected abuse keeps it simple for us. So why, then, do mandated reporters sometimes fail to report?

Paddington Station Preschool.

I recently read about a preschool in Denver, Colorado (my ex home-state) that ran into trouble when one of their teachers was accused of inappropriate behavior with his students. There is no evidence yet that actual molestation took place, but a journal has been discovered in which the teacher documented in minute detail every physical interaction he initiated with his students including sitting on laps, kissing cheeks, and holding waists. Also included were his comments about which girls did not outwardly react to his advances, and which girls had, in his words, “obviously been coached” to reject touching by non-family members. During a detention hearing this week, prosecutors revealed that a family had approached the Paddington Station Preschool’s director in 2001 with concerns that their three year old daughter told them she had been touched inappropriately by this teacher. At the time, the school’s director did not report the parents’ concerns to any outside officials (such as police or social workers). In fact, the school has no record that the meeting ever took place.

Perhaps predictably, the fallout from both the director’s mistake 10 years ago, and the recent accusations against the teacher, have been devastating. The parents who made the original report pulled their children from the daycare after they were led to believe the teacher would be fired yet nothing happened. The school’s director was recently forced out of her position. The founder and head of the school stepped down from her position last week, and removed herself from the school’s three-member board. Dozens of children may have endured uncomfortable and confusing encounters with their teacher that they were unable to explain. Parents are angry, confused, and frustrated, overflowing the courtroom and having to sit through graphic testimony about child pornography allegedly discovered on the teacher’s computer. In other words, chaos and heartbreak for this school’s close-knit community.

Could all of this been prevented had the Paddington Preschool’s director fulfilled her duty as a mandated reporter 10 years ago? It is impossible to know for sure. But it is reasonable to suspect that the situation might not have resulted in this difficult moment if the director had simply followed the law without delay (not to mention that her failure to report in essence bestowed upon the teacher an intervening 10 year period during which he was in daily, direct contact with vulnerable children at the school, while at home he continued to amass an extensive – over 4,000 images – collection of child erotica and pornography).

One clue about why otherwise responsible professionals might fail to report suspected child abuse can be found in a 2008 study published in the journal Pediatrics. Titled “Translating Child Abuse Research Into Action” (Flaherty, Sege & Hurley, 2008), the study revealed that a little more than 1 in 4 pediatricians failed to report suspected abuse, even if they thought a child’s injuries were the result of abuse. Study results showed that,

“In 27 percent of cases where a doctor believed a child’s injury was “likely” or “very likely” the result of abuse, that doctor did not report it…The doctors and physicians’ assistants documented each injury themselves, referenced the likelihood of its being the result of abuse and noted what, if any, action the doctors took.”

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Emalee Flaherty of Northwestern University in Chicago is quoted as saying that,

“…doctors in her experience often have difficulty distinguishing whether an injury is the result of abuse. Many children’s injuries fall in a gray area between an accident and abuse, and many doctors don’t realize they don’t have to be certain about abuse to report their suspicions.”

When asked why they did not report suspected abuse, the pediatricians gave variations on the following reasons:

  1. They were not certain abuse had occurred.
  2. They had had a previous negative experience with a child protective services agency (CPS).
  3. They doubted whether CPS did enough to protect children from harm.

In fact, in a previous study conducted in 1998, half of Chicago-area physicians polled indicated they were less willing to report suspected abuse based on previous experiences with CPS (Flaherty et al., 2000). In fact, two separate studies indicate that Chicago-area physicians reported cases in which a child they had brought to the attention of CPS had suffered further abuse due to CPS’ failure to respond in a timely manner (Flaherty et al., 2006; Flaherty et al., 2008). I really can’t speak to the alleged failures of the Chicago CPS. The 2008 study offers a few explanations for items #2 and #3 on the above list, including miscommunication between physicians and CPS and a misunderstanding on the part of physicians about CPS’ role and duties. Of course chronic underfunding for agencies such as CPS is mentioned.

But with regards to item #1 on the list, that may be where there is the most confusion, but also where there needs to be the most clarity for mandated reporters. When the director of the Paddington Preschool failed to report the parents’ suspicions, perhaps she was acting out a sense of extreme prudence. Not wanting to make a mountain out of a mole hill, so to speak. But the point is that it wasn’t up to her to determine whether it was a mole hill, or whether there was in a fact a mountain standing right in front of her. Her job was to report, and let the appropriate agency investigate. As future school psychologists, it is good to be reminded of one of the more difficult aspects of our job, especially when that reminder comes from real-world examples in which real people are affected.

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