Mandated Reporters: Protection Does Not Weaken Accountability

Dear Chronicle of Social Change,

Dr. Franne Sippel and I are licensed professionals who have dedicated our careers to serving vulnerable children and their families. In the course of our work on the front lines, we have observed gaps in protection from liability for mandatory reporters.

Dr. Sippel addressed this lack of immunity in her recent opinion piece in The Imprint,Existing Protections Fall Short for Mandated Child Abuse Reporters.” Richard Wexler, a journalist who claims to be an expert in child welfare policy, countered with a blog post entitled “Just What We Need in Child Welfare: Less Accountability!

But Mr. Wexler, misses the point. Dr. Sippel is not calling for “minimal accountability”; she is advocating for enforced and expanded protections for those already serving as child abuse reporters.

Sixty percent of all reports of abuse or neglect are made by a child’s teacher, therapist, doctor or another child care provider. These are the trusted adults in a child’s life. If they are silenced, who will be that child’s voice? It is unreasonable to conclude that people with advanced education, training, credentials and extensive experience, would compromise their ethical judgment in favor of “less accountability.”

Rather, they do not want to be sued for doing what the law requires – taking reasonable steps to prevent harm to a child.

In his blog post, Mr. Wexler makes a number of inaccurate statements about mandatory reporting:

Wexler: “They (child abuse reporters) already have protections from lawsuits that are so strong that they not only have to violate the law but have good reason to know they’re doing it, or be acting maliciously before a jury can even consider what they have done to an innocent family.”

Fact: No government entity prevents an alleged child abuser from suing a mandated reporter in civil court. All an adult needs is a lawyer willing to take the case.

A Health and Human Services report from 2013 included results from a survey of 544 medical professionals about their experience “cooperating or assisting with the filing of a mandatory report or providing consultation services to health care providers, investigators, child welfare agencies or law enforcement … and any resulting litigation.” Most respondents had at least 20 years of experience, with many over 30 years.

More than one in 10 of these medical professionals had been sued in federal or state courts for alleged malpractice, or for alleged civil rights violations.

Wexler: “Out of the millions of times mandated reporters have filed reports – or in some cases, even seized children on their own authority – she’s [Dr. Sippel] found a handful in which the reporter was sued or faced come kind of retaliation.”

Fact: Again, the HHS report’s’s study found that 11 percent of doctors who worked on cases of child abuse or neglect were subsequently sued by the alleged abusers. Obviously, this is more than a “handful,” and indicates a nationwide problem.

In addition, the report did not include a statistical analysis of non-medical professionals. The report did cite a number of court cases in which educators, social workers, and psychologists also experienced legal retribution for doing child protection work.

Wexler: “The report passes on recommendations from mandated reporters … Surprise! They want even less accountability … the extremism of some seeking to avoid accountability knows no bounds.”

Fact: Here is what the report says on the matter:

“Since the first state laws enacted in the 1960s related to mandated reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect, a fundamental provision of the laws was granting immunity for those reporting in good faith, even if their suspicions were incorrect. From the onset, the medical profession feared being a target for potential lawsuits, concerned about retaliation by parents who were the subject of child abuse and neglect reports … (our) review of all state immunity laws disclosed that states have universally extended civil immunity to all good faith reporters.”

But, as Dr. Sippel notes, these laws offer little real protection to community professionals:

  • Great variation exists among current state laws. There are no uniform standards for who is considered a mandated reporter, and how, when, and to whom a report must be made.
  • Immunity laws for good faith child abuse reporting are ineffective because there is no government enforcement. No state provides a complaint process for investigating instances of retaliation against mandatory reporters.
  • Advocates for child abuse prevention do not want abuse reporting laws strengthened “to avoid accountability” – just the opposite. We want government enforcement of legal protections for mandatory reporting, so suspected abuse can be investigated, and perpetrators can be held responsible.

Wexler begins his blog with sarcasm: “Pity the poor oppressed mandated reporter.”

Wexler directs the one-man organization, The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, and he claims to be an advocate for children. Yet, Mr. Wexler’s degree is in journalism, and he does not have advanced education, training, or actual work experience in the child welfare field.

In serious discussion about which policies best keep children safe, we must consider factual information rather than opinions based on personal beliefs. Mr. Wexler’s mockery of professionals who work with child abuse victims is unfair and does not deserve consideration in a public forum.

Nancy Guardia, MSW, LCSW practiced as a clinical social worker in Massachusetts for over twenty years, providing psychotherapy to individuals and families. She has expertise treating trauma survivors and working with men convicted of domestic violence. She is currently a licensed social worker in New York state and advocates for a national law on child protection.

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