Child Abuse Reporting

A New York court ruled that the subject of a child abuse report had no legal right to obtain the name of the person who reported the abuse.

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 the subject of a child abuse report had no legal right to obtain the name of the person who reported the abuse, despite his claim that he needed the reporter's identity so that he could sue him for filing a false and malicious report.

A public school employee reported a suspected case of child abuse to state authorities. The report identified the suspected perpetrator of the abuse (the plaintiff). Upon learning that he was accused of child abuse, the plaintiff sued the school for defamation and emotional distress. When the school refused to disclose the name of the employee who reported the abuse, the plaintiff sought a court order compelling the school to disclose the reporter's identity.

A trial court granted the order, but a state appeals court reversed this ruling. The appeals court noted that the state child abuse reporting law specifies that reports of child abuse "shall be confidential and shall only be made available" to certain persons and agencies listed in the statute. While persons who are the subject of a report are entitled to a copy of the report, the law specifies that "nothing in this [law] shall be construed to permit any release, disclosure or identification of the names or identifying descriptions of persons who have reported suspected child abuse or maltreatment to the statewide central register … without such persons' written permission."

The court agreed with the plaintiff that the child abuse reporting law allows the subject of a child abuse report to sue the reporter for monetary damages if the reporter did not act in good faith and acted with willful misconduct or gross negligence. However, the court noted that the statute "made no exception for the disclosure of the name of the person reporting the suspected abuse where there is an allegation that such person acted with willful misconduct or gross negligence, and we decline to read an implied exception into the statute."

The court conceded that its conclusion "may make it difficult for plaintiff to pursue his action, but our holding is consistent with the intent of [the law] to protect the confidentiality of the names of the persons reporting suspected child abuse [since] disclosure of sources of information could have a chilling effect, thus hampering agency efforts in providing services to distressed families. If a party alleging defamation, such as plaintiff here, could obtain the names of the reporters by simply commencing a defamation action, any such exception would swallow the rule of reporter confidentiality."

Application . Church leaders who report child abuse (or who are considering doing so) often wonder if their identity will be revealed to the alleged abuser. This case demonstrates that a reporter's identity may be kept confidential as a result of state law, even if this means that it will be difficult if not impossible for alleged abusers to exercise their right under a child abuse reporting law to sue a reporter for making a false or grossly negligent report. Selapack v. Iroquois Central School District, 794 N.Y.S.2d 547 (N.Y. App. 2005).

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