Child Abuse

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a person who reported suspected child abuse to the authorities could not be sued by the alleged perpetrator.

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.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a person who reported suspected child abuse to the authorities could not be sued by the alleged perpetrator after the report was determined to be unfounded.

Many pastors, lay church employees, and volunteers are mandatory reporters of child abuse under state law. Mandatory reporters are legally required to report known and reasonably suspected cases of child abuse to a designated state agency. Often, it is very difficult to know if abuse has occurred. This raises the possibility that abuse in some cases will be reported that in fact never occurred, so long as the reporter had a "reasonable suspicion" that it did.

In a recent case in Georgia, a mother suspected that her two young daughters had been sexually molested by their paternal grandfather after spending a weekend with him. She took the girls to a counselor, who reported the suspected abuse to the state. The prosecutor later announced a "nolle pros" of the case, meaning that a decision had been made not to prosecute (neither innocence nor guilt is to be inferred from such a disposition). The grandfather sued the counselor for filing a false report.

The state supreme court noted that the child abuse reporting law provided "immunity" from civil or criminal liability to anyone who "in good faith" reports child abuse. The court continued,

We conclude that immunity may attach in two ways, either by showing that "reasonable cause" exists or by showing "good faith." Once a reporter has reasonable cause to suspect child abuse has occurred, she must report it or face criminal penalties. The trigger for the duty to report is "reasonable cause to believe," which requires an objective analysis. The relevant question is whether the information available at the time would lead a reasonable person in the position of the reporter to suspect abuse. Once reasonable cause has been established under this standard, a reporter complying with the statutory mandate to make a report is, by definition, operating in good faith. Therefore, if the objective analysis supports the reporter's conclusion that child abuse has occurred, then immunity attaches and there is no need to further examine the reporter's good faith.

On the other hand, if under an objective analysis, the information would not lead a reasonable person to suspect child abuse, the reporter may still have immunity if she made the report in good faith …. Good faith is a subjective standard … a state of mind indicating honesty and lawfulness of purpose; belief that one's conduct is not unconscionable or that known circumstances do not require further investigation …. Thus, the relevant question is whether the reporter honestly believed she had a duty to report. A reporter acting in good faith will be immune even if she is negligent or exercises bad judgment.

The court concluded that the evidence in this case clearly demonstrated that the counselor was acting in good faith when she made the report. In particular, the court noted that the victims were young children who made specific allegations of sexual contact by their grandfather. The "sexually explicit nature of these allegations by such young children raised a concern about the possibility of abuse. We conclude that, as a matter of law, the children's allegations are sufficient to cause a reasonable person to suspect that child abuse has occurred." As a result, the court dismissed the grandfather's lawsuit against the counselor.

The court rejected the grandfather's argument that even if a reporter has reasonable cause to believe that child abuse has occurred, he may be personally liable for reporting the abuse if he did so in bad faith. The court noted that "this interpretation chills the reporting requirement and fails to honor the legislative goal of protecting children by encouraging the reporting of suspected child abuse. It furthermore would require a mandatory reporter to make a detailed investigation before making a report. Such an investigation is contrary to the statutory scheme that places the job of investigation on child welfare authorities and the criminal justice system."

Application . Every state provides limited immunity from liability to persons who report child abuse. According to this court, reporters have immunity from liability if they (1) have a reasonable suspicion that child abuse has occurred, or (2) act in good faith. The counselor in this case satisfied both of these grounds, and so there was no basis for personal liability. Second, the court concluded that "specific allegations" of sexual molestation by young children raise an inference of child abuse that trigger the immunity from liability provided by law. O'Heron v. Blaney, 583 S.E.2d 834 (Ga. 2003).

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