Child Abuse – Part 2

Church Law and Tax 1990-01-01 Recent Developments Child Abuse Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA

Church Law and Tax 1990-01-01 Recent Developments

Child Abuse

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a state law requiring the reporting of known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse to state authorities was unconstitutionally vague. Here are the facts. An elementary school principal received reports from two mothers that their boys had been sexually contacted by a particular teacher in the school. The principal failed to report such incidents to the authorities, and he later was prosecuted for violating a state law requiring any “professional engaged in the practice of education who knows or has reason to believe a child is being neglected or physically or sexually abused” to report the incident to the state. The principal claimed that the child abuse reporting law was unconstitutional since it was too “vague.” The court acknowledged the “fundamental principle that a [criminal] statute must define the criminal offense with such definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited … in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement.” The principal argued that the phrases “reason to believe” and “physically or sexually abused” are so uncertain that reasonable persons cannot determine their actual meaning. A trial court agreed with the principal’s position, but the state supreme court reversed. It ruled that state law did sufficiently define the term “physically or sexually abused” (sexual abuse was defined as any contact that violates the state criminal sexual contact law), and that the term “reason to believe” also had a definite meaning under Minnesota law. The court also rejected the principal’s argument that his right of “free speech” was violated by his prosecution for violating the child abuse reporting law. All the law required, observed the court, was the reporting of information—”a requirement not altogether dissimilar from that imposed by the Internal Revenue Code.” Finally, the court observed that “a professional is free to include in a report that although the report is mandated because the reporter has reason to believe that a child has been abused, the reporter does not hold a personal belief that the child has been physically or sexually abused.” This case illustrates a number of important principles: (1) Every state has a child abuse reporting law requiring certain persons to report known or reasonably suspected cases of child abuse. It is imperative for you to determine which persons are required to report under your state law, since a failure to report (by a person having a legal duty to report) may result in criminal prosecution. (2) Child abuse reporting laws may not be as clear as we would like, but they have been upheld by a number of courts, including the Minnesota Supreme Court. (3) Church leaders should not only determine which employees and volunteers have a legal duty to report, but they also must familiarize themselves with the definition of “sexual” and “physical” abuse under state law. Contact that may seem too trivial to report may well satisfy the definition of sexual abuse under state law. (4) The court specifically acknowledged that “a professional is free to include in a report that although the report is mandated because the reporter has reason to believe that a child has been abused, the reporter does not hold a personal belief that the child has been physically or sexually abused.” State v. Grover, 437 N.W.2d 60 (Minn. 1989).

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