Child Abuse Reporting

A California court ruled that a school counselor who reported suspected child abuse to civil authorities could not be sued for defamation and emotional distress.

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 California court ruled that a school counselor who reported suspected child abuse to civil authorities could not be sued for defamation and emotional distress as a result of his disclosure to the victim's mother that he had reported the abuse.

The victim's mother informed the school counselor that her son had been molested by another student. The counselor reported the abuse to civil authorities, and then informed the victim's mother that he had done so. The molester's parents sued the counselor and the school, claiming that the counselor unlawfully disclosed the report to the victim's mother, a person "not authorized to receive the report." A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and a state appeals court affirmed this result.

The court noted that a school counselor was a mandatory child abuse reporter under state law; that he was required to report the abuse reported to him by the victim's mother; and, that he had immunity from liability under the state child abuse reporting law, and this immunity prevented the molester's parents from suing him for informing the victim's mother that he had reported the alleged abuse.

The court concluded, "In exchange for imposing a mandatory duty to report instances of suspected child abuse, the law provides these individuals with absolute immunity from civil liability for making such reports." The child abuse reporting law specifies that no mandatory reporter who reports a known or suspected instance of child abuse "shall be civilly or criminally liable for any report required or authorized" by law. This immunity from liability "protects both initial and subsequent communications related to the reporting of suspected child abuse. Here [the counselor's] disclosure of the report was a subsequent communication, and she is absolutely immune from liability." The school was also immune, since it could not be liable if the counselor was not.

Application . Pastors often are presented with allegations of child abuse. This case suggests that pastors who are mandatory reporters cannot be sued by the alleged abuser if they inform a victim's parents that they have reported the abuse as required by law. Of course, there is no guaranty that the courts in other states will follow this ruling, so pastors should check with an attorney before informing victims' parents that they have reported allegations of child abuse. However, this case is one of the only cases that addresses this issue, and so it may be given special consideration by courts in other jurisdictions. Shryer v. Carmel Unified School District, 2002 WL 32556 (Cal. App. 2002).

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