Key point 4-08. Every state has a child abuse reporting law that requires persons designated as mandatory reporters to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse. Ministers are mandatory reporters in many states. Some states exempt ministers from reporting child abuse if they learned of the abuse in the course of a conversation protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Ministers may face criminal and civil liability for failing to report child abuse.
An Arkansas appeals court ruled that a school counselor who reported a case of child abuse 14 days after learning about it had not reported the abuse "immediately" as required by the state child abuse reporting law, and therefore was properly convicted for the crime of failing to report abuse immediately and sentenced to one-year probation and payment of a $2,500 fine. An 18-year-old woman (the "victim") informed her father that she had been involved in a sexual relationship with her high school volleyball coach for two years beginning when she was 16 years of age. The victim was extremely distressed over the break-up of her relationship with the coach, and did not want her parents to report the affair to the authorities. The victim's parents met with the coach two days later and insisted that she resign. Later that day the parents received a call from the school counselor (the "defendant") who convinced the parents that, for the good of the school and their relationship with their daughter, they should not report the inappropriate relationship to the police. Instead, the defendant told the parents that they should view the incident as a "bad breakup" and wait until the end of the school year when the coach would quietly resign her position.
The parents agreed to wait one week to report the relationship, and at the end of the week they informed the defendant that they would wait an additional week. At the end of the second week, or 14 days after the defendant first learned of the abuse, she made an anonymous report to the child abuse hotline upon learning that the parents planned to do so.
The defendant was prosecuted for the crime of failing to report child abuse "immediately" as required by the child abuse reporting law. She was found guilty of "first-degree failure to notify by a mandated reporter," and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $2,500 fine. The defendant appealed on two grounds. First, that the child abuse reporting statute did not define the term "immediately," and that her report filed within 14 days was "immediate." Second, she claimed that mandatory reporters have no duty to report cases of child abuse when the victims are 18 years of age or older. Both contentions are addressed below.
The duty to report "immediately"
The Arkansas child abuse reporting law requires persons classified as mandatory reporters to "immediately" notify the hotline if he or she reasonably suspects child maltreatment has occurred. The parties agreed that the defendant, as a school counselor, was a mandatory reporter. The defendant argued on appeal that this term was unconstitutionally vague. In several cases, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that criminal statutes that do not provide persons of ordinarily intelligence with fair notice of what conduct is prohibited violate the Constitution's guaranty of due process. The defendant insisted that the word "immediately" was unconstitutionally vague since it failed to provide fair notice of what was expected. The court disagreed, noting:
If a person's conduct clearly falls within what is prohibited, that person cannot complain that a statute is vague … . [The defendant] cannot complain that inclusion of the word "immediately" renders the statute vague, since her conduct of purposely delaying making a report to the child abuse hotline for more than two weeks after acquiring direct knowledge of the child maltreatment clearly did not satisfy the requirement of immediacy that is placed on a mandated reporter.
Reporting child abuse when a victim has reached adulthood
Church leaders often are unsure if they are required to report child abuse after a victim of abuse has reached adulthood. Very few courts have addressed this question, so this aspect of the court's opinion is significant. The court concluded that the fact that the victim was 18 (an adult) when she disclosed her abuse as a minor did not affect the duty of the defendant, as a mandatory reporter, to report the abuse. It stressed that the child abuse reporting statute requires mandatory reporters to report child abuse if they have "reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been subjected to child maltreatment." The court noted that the statute "is written in the past tense to include a child who has been subjected to child maltreatment." Therefore, "by its plain language, the statute includes the situation here, where the defendant discovered that the victim had been subjected to child maltreatment when she was in high school and under the age of eighteen."
In responding to the defendant's argument that it would be absurd to interpret the child abuse reporting law to require mandatory reporters to report incidents of child abuse when the victim has reached adulthood, since this would require the reporting of abuse that in some cases happened "decades in the past," the court noted that the purpose of the child abuse reporting law "is not only to protect a maltreated child, but also to protect any other child under the same care who may be in danger of maltreatment."
What This Means For Churches:
Every state has a child abuse reporting statute that requires persons designated as "mandatory reporters" to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse to a designated state agency. These reporting laws typically require mandatory reporters to report abuse "immediately," within a specified time (i.e., 24 hours or 48 hours). As this case demonstrates, mandatory reporters who fail to report abuse by the deadline prescribed by law face criminal penalties, which may include prison or a fine. As a result, it is imperative for church leaders to be familiar with the definition of "mandatory reporter" under state law, and the time period for reporting abuse (for more help, please see the 2015 Child Abuse Reporting Laws for Churches resource on ChurchLawAndTaxStore.com).
We recommend that legal counsel be retained to assist church leaders with understanding two important issues under state law: First, the time period for reporting child abuse; and second, the duty to report child abuse when the victim is now an adult. Griffin v. State, 4543 S.W.3d 262 (Ark. App. 2015).