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 school principal and counselor could be personally liable for failing to report suspected child abuse to state authorities.
A 9-year-old girl informed her mother that she had been sexually molested by her half-brother, Anthony. The mother reported this information to a school counselor who referred the girl to a counseling center for professional counseling. The mother then informed the school principal of Anthony's behavior. A few months later, the mother learned that Anthony had been subjecting two other sisters to continuous acts of sexual intercourse and she immediately called the police. The mother later sued the school counselor and principal for failing to report the allegations of sexual abuse to the statewide central register of child abuse. New York's child abuse reporting law requires mandatory reporters to report child abuse "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, or when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is an abused or maltreated child where the parent, guardian, custodian or other person legally responsible for such child comes before them in their professional or official capacity and states from personal knowledge facts, conditions or circumstances which, if correct, would render the child an abused or maltreated child."
The child abuse reporting law specifies that "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."
Both the school counselor and principal were mandatory reporters under state law, and as such were potentially liable for failing to report the information shared with them by the mother. They claimed, however, that reportable child abuse was defined by state law to include only such abuse as is inflicted upon a minor by a "parent or other person legally responsible for his care." The counselor and principal argued that since Anthony was not a person "legally responsible" for the care of any of the victims, they were not required to report the mother's allegations of abuse as required by state law. The court disagreed. It concluded,
It is not the duty of the mandated reporter to assess whether the abuser would be considered by Family Court to be a "person legally responsible" or whether a "person legally responsible" allowed the abuse to occur. If [the mandated reporter] has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been sexually abused, the reporter must report immediately. It is the duty of the investigating agency to determine whether the report was founded.
Application . This case demonstrates two important points. First, mandatory reporters of child abuse under state law may be personally liable for failing to report known or reasonably suspected cases of child abuse. A listing of each state that imposes liability on mandatory reporters who fail to report abuse is contained in a feature article that appeared in the May-June 2004 issue of this newsletter. Second, the court in this case concluded that the principal and counselor could be personally liable for failing to report suspected child abuse even though they did not believe reportable abuse had occurred since Anthony was not a person "responsible for the care" of the victims. The court ruled that it is the duty of the state, and not mandatory reporters themselves, to determine if a perpetrator of child abuse is someone "responsible for the care" of the victim. As a result, the principal and counselor erred in not reporting the suspected abuse, and letting the state decide whether or not the abuse met the definition of reportable abuse under the law. Catherine G. v. County of Essex, 761 N.Y.S.2d 727 (Sup. Ct. 2003).