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Suspected Child Abuse: What's a Teacher to Do? : MARY LAINE YARBER

March 17, 1994

My friend and I recently watched a television news report on a fatal case of child abuse. Needless to say, such reports are not uncommon--and neither is the comment that my friend made: "Why aren't teachers involved in spotting and reporting child abuse, so that it can't go this far?"

I cannot explain how a child's suffering can be allowed to continue to the point of death. But I can address the responsibility of teachers to report such abuse.

Teachers are often the first (and sometimes the only) people to make law enforcement or social service agencies aware of possible child abuse cases, whether it be physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or physical neglect. In fact, the policies on how teachers should report suspected abuse are strict and specific.

Teachers are "mandated reporters." That is, we are required by law to report all suspected incidents of child abuse. Teachers have specific guidelines for correct reporting, set out in Section 11167 of the Penal Code. For example, we must make an immediate telephone report to a child protective service or law enforcement agency. Immediate obviously means as soon as possible. But when a teacher has no classroom access to a phone, he or she must make the call at least by the end of the school day. If a child is being abused at home, it may be necessary to prevent him or her from returning there after school.

The report must include the reporter's name, the name and location of the child, the type and extent of the suspected injury, and any other pertinent details. There is some degree of confidentiality: The reporter's name may be known to the agencies involved in the case and the attorneys who investigate or prosecute it.

My biggest fear in reporting suspected abuse is, "What if I'm wrong?" Again, teachers are responsible only for reporting apparent abuse, not for proving it. We have no liability for a report that proves to be unfounded, and can't be fired for it. But here's the crux: The law allows an accused parent or other party to sue a teacher who reports abuse that is later proven to have been nonexistent.

While hefty lawyers' fees and gut-wrenching litigation make this a frightening prospect, the law does provide some help for a teacher headed for court: The state pays up to $50,000 of legal fees if the teacher wins the case. The bad news, of course, is that the teacher must pay the fees, then wait to be reimbursed.

If the whole process of reporting seems too bothersome or tenuous, consider the alternative. A teacher who suspects child abuse but does not report it is guilty of a misdemeanor, and could be sentenced to up to six months in county jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

By far, however, the ultimate punishment for a negligent teacher is the possibility that, as a result of such negligence, a child may some day suffer the same fate as the youngster who was the subject of the news report I watched the other night.

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