Child Abuse Reporting

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a school principal who disclosed to an alleged child abuser the identities of the school employees who reported the abuse could be prosecuted.

Key point. Persons who disclose the identities of those who report child abuse may be subject to criminal prosecution under the confidentiality provisions of the child abuse reporting laws of some states.

* The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a school principal who disclosed to an alleged child abuser the identities of the school employees who reported the abuse could be prosecuted for violating the state child abuse reporting law's prohibition on the disclosure of the identities of reporters. A teacher noticed a mark on a child's forehead, and suspected it was the result of child abuse. The teacher removed the student from the classroom and took him to another teacher for evaluation. The teachers concluded that it was possible that the child had been abused, and they reported the abuse to civil authorities. A social worker arrived a short time later, spoke with the student, and determined that abuse was unlikely. The child's parents learned of the incident and were very upset at how it was handled. They met with their child's teacher, the school principal, and the superintendent of schools. The superintendent of schools later wrote the parents a letter in which he disclosed the identity of the two teachers who noticed and reported the suspected abuse. The superintendent was later charged with violating a state law prohibiting the disclosure of the identities of persons who report suspected child abuse. The statute specifies, "All reports made under this section … shall be confidential. Reports and records may be disclosed only to [the child's parents] …. Any person who violates this section … may be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than 6 months or both."

The state supreme court ruled that the word "disclose" requires that the persons to whom the identity of a child abuse reporter is communicated must have been unaware of the reporter's identity at the time of the disclosure, and therefore the state has the burden of proving this beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the court rejected the superintendent's argument that he could not be guilty of violating the statute because he did not "intend" to disclose confidential information. The court concluded that the statute did not require a specific intent, and therefore the superintendent could be convicted for simply disclosing reporters' identities without any proof of intent. It concluded, "Here, the legislature, by establishing a confidentiality requirement, was clearly attempting to impose a high standard of care on those with access to records and reports of child abuse and neglect. In such a case, it is not unfathomable that the legislature would eliminate a mental state to enforce such a standard."

Application. The relevance of this case to church leaders is apparent. In many states, pastors are mandatory reporters of child abuse (see the May-June 2003 issue of Richard Hammar's Church Law & Tax Report newsletter for a review of the child abuse reporting laws of all 50 states). In many cases, church employees or volunteers share their suspicions of child abuse with the pastor who then may or may not report the allegations to the state. Pastors who report abuse that is disclosed to them by staff members, and who later reveal the identity of the "reporter" to the alleged offender, may be subject to criminal penalties. This is an important point for pastors to consider before disclosing the identity of a child abuse reporter to the person accused of abuse. State v. Polashek, 646 N.W.2d 330 (Wisc. 2002).

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