Child Abuse

A New York court ruled that a teacher who failed to report a known case of child abuse could not be sued by the parents of the victim.

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.

A New York court ruled that a teacher who failed to report a known case of child abuse could not be sued by the parents of the victim.

A 16-year old male (Kevin) attended a summer theatre program where he was sexually molested by a male instructor. The instructor was later convicted of a felony, and sent to prison. Kevin's parents sued the offender, and they also sued a music teacher at the school Kevin attended. They claimed that Kevin informed his music teacher about the molestation, but that the teacher failed to report the abuse to civil authorities as required by the state child abuse reporting law.

The reporting law specifies, "Any person, official or institution required by this title to report a case of suspected child abuse or maltreatment who knowingly and willfully fails to do so shall be civilly liable for the damages proximately caused by such failure." Teachers are among the list of persons required to report suspected abuse or maltreatment of a child, "when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child coming before them in their professional or official capacity is an abused or maltreated child."

Kevin's mother claimed that the teacher's failure to report the abuse of her son "prevented [her] from being able to take protective measures to safeguard her son from [the molester's] continued harassment" for approximately six months, until she learned of the incident from another source, and that she herself "suffered grievous emotional, mental and physical pain and suffering" as a result.

A state appeals court concluded that the child abuse reporting statute did not provide parents with a legal basis to sue mandatory child abuse reporters who fail to report. It observed, "The mere provision of a civil remedy for 'damages proximately caused' by a failure to comply with mandatory reporting statutes does not, in this court's view, signal an intention by the legislature to impose liability for harm suffered by individuals other than the subject child."

In summary, the child abuse reporting law only permits monetary damages to be awarded to children for injuries they suffer as a result of a mandatory reporter's failure to report child abuse. Parents of victims of child abuse have no right to sue for damages under the statute.

Application . A number of state child abuse reporting law impose liability on mandatory child abuse reporters for injuries caused by their failure to report. The New York court concluded that such a provision only permits children themselves to sue mandatory reporters for damages resulting from a failure to report; their parents are not allowed to sue for damages incurred by their children.

The court noted that Kevin had been repeatedly harassed by the molester following the initial incident of molestation, and so there was ample basis for him to sue for the additional injuries he had incurred as a result of the teacher's failure to report. But, his parents had no right to do so. Lurene F. v. Olsson, 740 N.Y.S.2d 797 (N.Y. App. 2002).

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