Reporting Child Abuse

Can a reporter be sued if the abuse did not actually occur?

Church Law and Tax 1992-11-01 Recent Developments

Taxation – Church Property

Can a person who reports suspected child abuse be sued if it is later determined that the abuse did not actually occur? That was the issue before an Arizona appeals court. A mother began taking her 5-year-old son to a counselor. The mother later informed the counselor that her 3-year-old daughter had described being molested by her father. Based on this information, the counselor reported the alleged child abuse to state authorities. The father was indicted on two felony counts, but the charges were later dismissed. The father then sued the counselor for actual and punitive damages. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the father appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court that the counselor could not be sued for making a report of child abuse. It noted that counselors are “mandatory reporters” under Arizona law, meaning that they have a legal obligation to report child abuse if they have “reasonable grounds” that it has occurred. The court concluded that the counselor did have reasonable grounds that abuse had occurred, based on the conversation with the child’s mother, even though the counselor had not conducted an independent investigation. The court observed that the child abuse reporting statute “does not contemplate that a person must fully investigate the suspected abuse before making a report,” and that “we do not believe that our legislature intended persons with knowledge of alleged child abuse to conduct their own investigation to decide whether enough evidence of abuse exists to warrant a report.” The court also noted that the child abuse reporting statute specifies that a person who has reasonable grounds to make a report “shall be immune from any civil or criminal liability” unless the person acts with “malice”. The state child abuse reporting statute defines “malice” as “a wish to vex, annoy or injure another person, or an intent to do a wrongful act.” The court concluded that the counselor in this case was not guilty of malice, and accordingly she was entitled to immunity from legal liability for filing her report. It noted that there was no evidence that the counselor’s report had been motivated by any malice toward the father or that the counselor “bore any ill will toward the father.” This case is relevant to church workers. Most if not all state child abuse reporting laws provide a “qualified immunity” to persons with reasonable grounds for reporting abuse. This means that the reporter cannot be legally liable for reporting the abuse so long as he or she did not act maliciously. This is a very difficult standard to prove. This case suggests that reasonable grounds to report child abuse may exist solely on the basis of one other person’s (in this case, the mother’s) disclosure of an incident of abuse. L.A.R. v. Ludwig, 821 P.2d 291 (Ariz. App. 1991).

See Also: Failure to Report Child Abuse

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