Child Abuse

A Mississippi court ruled that the principal of a church school who reported a suspected case of child abuse to state authorities could not be sued by the parents of the child.

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 Mississippi court ruled that the principal of a church school who reported a suspected case of child abuse to state authorities could not be sued by the parents of the child.

After investigating reports of abnormal behavior by a child at a church-operated school, the school principal determined that she had reasonable cause to believe that the child was a victim of abuse. The principal contacted the local Department of Human Services (DHS), as required by the state child abuse reporting law, and reported her findings. An investigation by the DHS followed. After learning of the investigation, the child's parents sued the principal and members of the school board to recover damages for defamation, libel, slander, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The parents later dropped their claims against the board members, but pursued their claims against the principal. A trial court dismissed the case, and the parents appealed.

A state appeals court upheld the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit. It began its opinion by quoting the state child abuse reporting law: "A public or private school employee or any other person having reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a neglected child or an abused child, shall cause an oral report to be made immediately … to the Department of Human Services." This language, the court concluded, "unequivocally commands reporting to be a mandatory duty."

The court pointed out that this mandatory reporting legislation "was for the single purpose of advancing the state's fundamental objective of eliminating child abuse and neglect." To effectuate this purpose, the state legislature adopted two provisions to "encourage reporting of suspected abuse." The first makes it a criminal offense for a mandatory reporter to fail to report known or reasonably suspected cases of child abuse. The second confers "immunity" from criminal or civil liability on persons who report abuse "in good faith." The court then observed,

The duty to report suspected child abuse attaches to an individual the moment they [sic] are presented with a situation producing "reasonable cause" for such suspicion. Hence, the standard for reporting is possessing suspicion of child abuse that is founded upon reasonable cause. Persons having reasonable cause must report their suspicion, and if reported in good faith, they are immune from civil liability for doing so. Immunity, therefore, is conditioned upon the report being made in good faith …. The immunity extended by the statute, as the parents in this case contend, is limited, but the limitation is conditioned upon nothing other than the presence of good faith …. For the parents to overcome the good faith presumption … their obligation was to satisfy the court as to the availability of evidence that demonstrates the principal acted with ill-will or actual malice. The allegations and accusations in the complaint were insufficient to overcome the presumption …. Presented with no evidence outside the bare allegations of the complaint, which contained no specific factual assertions that, if proven, would create a legitimate disputed issue of whether the principal was proceeding in bad faith, we cannot find error in the trial court's ruling.

. As this court correctly noted, child abuse reporting laws seek to encourage mandatory reporters to report suspected cases of child abuse by clothing them with immunity from liability for making reports. This immunity is "limited" in the sense that it does not protect against "bad faith" reports, which this court defined to mean "ill-will or actual malice." Howe v. Andereck, 2004 WL 557379 (Miss. App. 2004).

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