Child Abuse Reporting

A Wisconsin court ruled that a school principal who disclosed to an alleged child abuser the identities of the school employees who reported the abuse could be prosecuted.

Key point. Persons who disclose the identities of those who report child abuse may be subject to criminal prosecution under the confidentiality provisions of the child abuse reporting laws of some states.

A Wisconsin court ruled that a school principal who disclosed to an alleged child abuser the identities of the school employees who reported the abuse could be prosecuted for violating the state child abuse reporting law’s prohibition on the disclosure of the identities of reporters.

Two public school employees suspected that a child had been sexually abused. They reported their suspicion to the school principal, and a report was later filed with the state as required by law. The parents learned that a report had been filed when the state launched an investigation. They contacted the school principal because they were upset that the report had been made. The principal wrote them a letter in which he disclosed the identities of the two employees who made the initial report. The principal was later prosecuted under a provision in the state child abuse reporting law making it a crime to disclose the identity of a person who reports child abuse. Violators of the law are subject to a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to six months, or both. The trial court asked a state appeals court for assistance in drafting jury instructions. The appeals court began its opinion by making the following observations:

[The child abuse reporting law] includes provisions mandating the reporting of suspected child abuse …. The statute provides criminal penalties for reporters who intentionally fail to report as required by law. The statute also contains a provision that protects the confidentiality of records and reporters. However, the section authorizes disclosure of reports in specified cases. [The statute] provides in relevant part … all reports made under this section … shall be confidential. Reports and records may be disclosed only to the following persons … a child’s parent … except that the person or agency maintaining the record or report may not disclose any information that would identify the reporter …. A person who violates [this confidentiality provision] or who permits or encourages the unauthorized dissemination or use of the information contained in reports and records made under the section, may be fined or imprisoned, or both. Even if the principal was authorized to provide the parents with some information about the report, he could not “disclose” any information that would identify the reporter.

Application. The relevance of this case to church leaders is apparent. In many states, pastors are mandatory reporters of child abuse (see the May-June 2002 issue of this newsletter for a review of the child abuse reporting laws of all 50 states). In many cases, church employees or volunteers share their suspicions of child abuse with the pastor who then may or may not report the allegations to the state. Pastors who report abuse that is disclosed to them by staff members, and who later reveal the identity of the “reporter” to the alleged offender, may be subject to criminal penalties. This is an important point for pastors to consider before disclosing the identity of a child abuse reporter to the person accused of abuse. State v. Polashek, 630 N.W.2d 545 (Wisc. App. 2001).

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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