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.
An Indiana appeals court ruled that a husband and wife could sue the state for emotional suffering they experienced after the disclosure of the husband’s identity as the person who reported five neighbors on his church bus route to the child abuse hotline. A husband and wife (the “plaintiffs”) were actively involved in their church. The husband drives a church bus that regularly takes children in the neighborhood to church events. As a result of his involvement with many of these children, as well as incidents he witnessed in the neighborhood, the husband came to believe that children in various homes were being abused and neglected. He spoke to his wife about his concerns, which she shared, and she reluctantly agreed that the husband should make a report to the state Department of Child Services (DCS).
The husband called the DCS hotline to report his suspicions that children in five homes on his street were in need of services due to dangerous living situations. He believed the adult subjects of his report were involved in drugs or other criminal activities and were associated with serious and violent criminals. When he was about to end the call, the DCS employee asked for his name and phone number. The husband expressed reluctance and indicated that he did not want anyone to know that he had called. The employee responded that the information was confidential and nobody would find out that he made the report. The husband then agreed to give his first name and phone number, but not his last name. DCS also had the name of the street on which he lived.
About a week later, the plaintiff was confronted in his front yard by a neighbor (Heather) who lived across the street and was one of the neighbors the husband had reported. While screaming and yelling obscenities, Heather angrily accused the husband of calling DCS. She had in her possession an unredacted copy of the DCS report, which identified the husband as the reporting source. Other neighbors quickly became aware of the report. Upon realizing the report was not kept confidential, the husband felt like “somebody ripped my heart out.”
From that point on, the husband’s family no longer felt comfortable outside their house. They wanted to relocate but could not afford to move. The husband indicated that he was “stared at, glared at, flipped off, yelled at, you know, every day, forever.” His daughter was bullied by other children. Both the husband and wife missed work due to stress and lack of sleep, and the wife was screamed at and threatened by Heather. On one occasion, Heather threatened to “cut that smirky grin off your face.”
The couple filed a lawsuit against DCS, claiming that it had been negligent in failing to protect the husband’s identity. The trial court dismissed the case, concluding that the couple had no private right of action to bring a claim for violation of the child abuse reporting law’s assurance that the identity of reporters would not be disclosed. The couple appealed.
The state child abuse reporting law provides that reports shall be made available to “each parent, guardian, custodian, or other person responsible for the welfare of a child named in a report or record … with protection for the identity of reporters and other individuals,” (emphasis added) and “a person about whom a report has been made, with protection for the identity of … any person reporting known or suspected child abuse or neglect.” While the disclosure of the identity clearly violated this law, DCS argued that the statute did not confer a private right of action on persons harmed by its violations.
The court acknowledged that the child abuse reporting law did not specifically create a “cause of action” for child abuse reporters whose identities are revealed by DCS, but it concluded that this did not matter since a cause of action could be based on common law:
A special relationship was clearly established when the husband made the call to the DCS hotline and, after making his report, indicated his reluctance to give identifying information. Justifiably relying on the DCS employee’s explicit assurance that such information would be kept confidential, the husband then provided the information. The reasonable foreseeability of harm to him and his family upon improper disclosure of this information was evident … . Ultimately [the husband and his family] were left in a far worse position after he called the hotline and relied on DCS’s promise.
The court concluded that “under the specific circumstances of this case, the husband has established the existence of a private duty owed to him by DCS.”
What This Means For Churches:
It is common for ministers to learn that a minor has been abused. This can occur in a number of ways, including a confession by a perpetrator, a conversation with a victim, or a disclosure by a friend or relative of the victim or perpetrator. Ministers often are reluctant to report abuse because of a fear that their identity will be revealed and reprisals by the alleged perpetrator will follow. Most child abuse reporting statutes assure reporters that their identities will not be disclosed. But what if they are, and the reporter suffers retaliation? Can the minister sue the state agency that was responsible for the disclosure? According to this case, the answer is yes.
This was not the first court to address this issue. In a Texas case, a minister received confidential information from members of his congregation that two other members were physically and emotionally abusing their 5-year-old twin boys. The two members accused of abuse were the children’s biological father and stepmother.
The stepmother and her family were prominent members of the congregation. The boys’ biological mother was not a member of the congregation and was not named in the allegations of abuse. The minister tried to persuade the members who disclosed the abuse to report their suspicions to the state. When these efforts failed, the minister called the Department of Human Services. Before making his report, the minister asked a department caseworker if his call would be confidential. Specifically, he asked: “Now I mean … you’re telling me that there is no way that the people that I call in to talk about or anyone in their family will ever find out that I called or anything that I say in the course of this phone call.”
The minister made the report only after requesting and receiving assurances that his identity would not be disclosed to the family. Several months later the alleged abusers requested a copy of the department’s file in order to determine who reported them. The department’s legal counsel determined that there was no legal basis for withholding the minister’s identity, and so the file was released, including the identity of the minister.
Unfortunately, the minister’s worst fears were realized. After learning of their minister’s role in reporting the allegations of abuse against them, the parents filed a $1 million libel suit against him and the church. Several weeks later, the church asked the minister to resign. The libel suit was later dismissed.
Several months later the minister sued the Department of Human Services, seeking monetary damages and declaratory relief requiring the department to guard the confidentiality of persons who report child abuse. The minister claimed that the department’s negligence in disclosing his identity to the family, despite its assurances of confidentiality, caused his church to dismiss him and damaged his reputation. He claimed additional damages for medical expenses to combat depression and for legal expenses incurred by him and the church. A jury ruled in favor of the minister and awarded him damages of $611,000. The trial court concluded that the department violated confidentiality provisions of state law when it revealed the minister’s identity, and it ordered the department not to divulge such information in the future without a court order.
A state appeals court overturned the judgment against the department on the basis of sovereign immunity. Texas Department of Human Services v. Benson, 893 S.W.2d 236 (Tex. App. 1995). But the Texas appeals court affirmed the trial court’s order prohibiting the state from disclosing the identity of child abuse reporters. In barring the department from ever again following such a policy, the court observed: “We hold that the trial court properly declared that confidentiality is central to the [law’s] provisions governing the reporting of child abuse. Those provisions reflect a legislative determination that granting immunity and confidentiality to [reporters] will encourage the reporting of child abuse. The minister’s experience reveals how retaliation may devastate the life of a concerned citizen who fulfills his statutory duty to report suspected child abuse, absent the protection of confidentiality.” Doe v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 53 N.E.3d 613 (Ind. App. 2016).