Civil Liability for Failure to Report Child Abuse

Mandatory reporters who fail to report abuse can be subject to possible criminal liability and can be sued for money damages by the victims of 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 federal court in Washington ruled that a mandatory child abuse reporter’s failure to report the abuse of a minor by a church worker could result not only in criminal liability for the reporter, but also civil liability for the reporter and his employing church. A minor (the “plaintiff”) who was sexually molested by a church worker sued the church, claiming that it was liable for the worker’s acts on the basis of its failure to comply with the state child abuse reporting statute.

The church insisted that the state child abuse reporting law imposes criminal liability on mandatory reporters who fail to report abuse, but does not explicitly impose civil liability, and therefore the plaintiff could not sue the church for monetary damages in a civil lawsuit. The court conceded that courts in other states have generally refused to allow victims of child abuse to sue mandatory reporters who fail to report, but it noted that all of those rulings were in other states.

The plaintiff acknowledged that the reporting statute did not explicitly authorize civil lawsuits for failure to report, but argued that such a right could be “implied” from the statute. It pointed to a Washington Supreme Court case that articulated three factors for the courts to consider in deciding if a statute creates a civil remedy: “First, whether the plaintiff is within the class for whose benefit the statute was enacted; second, whether legislative intent, explicitly or implicitly, supports creating or denying a remedy; and third, whether implying a remedy is consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislation.”

The court concluded that these factors supported a finding in this case that the state child abuse reporting law created a civil remedy in favor of abused minors and against mandatory reporters who fail to report abuse:

The plaintiff, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, certainly falls within the class of persons the statute is designed to protect. Washington courts have clearly stated that the mandatory reporting statute is designed “to secure prompt protection or treatment for the victims of child abuse ….” Second, the legislative intent behind the statute supports the creation of a civil remedy. It is true that [the statute] provides a penal remedy, but not a civil remedy. [The church] asserts that such a penal remedy indicates that the legislature did not intend to imply a civil remedy also. However, this court recognizes, just as Washington state courts have recognized, that when a statute is enacted for the protection of a particular class of individuals, a violation of its terms may result in civil as well as criminal liability, even though the former remedy is not specifically mentioned therein …. The logical conclusion is that the legislative intent supports the creation of a civil remedy for victims of child sexual abuse when those mandated to report the abuse fail to do so. Likewise, the Court finds that implying a civil remedy is consistent with the underlying purpose of the statute. The declared intent of the statute is “to prevent further abuses, and to safeguard the general welfare of such children.” RCW 26.44.010. Implying a civil cause of action against those who are mandated to report child abuse, but fail to do so, will motivate those required to report to take action, and furthers the goals of the statute itself. Accordingly, the Court finds that there is an implied private cause of action stemming from the statutory requirement to report child abuse.

Application. Eight states (Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island) have enacted laws that create civil liability for failure to report child abuse. In these states victims of child abuse can sue adults who failed to report the abuse. Not only are adults who fail to report abuse subject to possible criminal liability (if they are mandatory reporters), but they also can be sued for money damages by the victims of abuse. In each state, the statute only permits victims of child abuse to sue mandatory reporters who failed to report the abuse. No liability is created for persons who are not mandatory reporters as defined by state law.

Most state child abuse reporting laws do not specifically authorize victims of abuse to sue mandatory reporters who failed to report the abuse. Several courts have addressed the issue of whether to recognize such a civil remedy apart from any specific language in the statute creating one. Most have not. The decision of the Washington federal court reflects the minority position. As a result, mandatory reporters in Washington may be subject to both criminal and civil liability for failing to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse. Fleming v. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2006 WL 753234 (W.D. Wash. 2006).

See a summary of the child abuse reporting laws of all 50 states.

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