Officials required to report possible child abuse, neglect
Principals, police officers, doctors, clergy and school custodians may all have very different jobs, but they share one big responsibility.
As mandated reporters, they are legally required to report cases of child abuse or neglect.
This law encompasses every employee who works in schools, and just about everyone who works in social services, child care, police forces or medicine.
"If you are in a position where you are going to come into contact with children, you are probably a mandated reporter," said Michael Williams, executive director of the Champaign County Children's Advocacy Center in Urbana, which interviews children involved in possible cases of abuse or neglect, among other services.
But anyone can call the state's Child Abuse Hotline, and 257,481 calls were made in fiscal year 2006 alone, according to Illinois Department of Children and Family Services statistics. Of those callers, about 70 percent of reports were taken from mandated reporters.
In Champaign County that year, 606 children were identified as in abuse or neglect situations as a result of investigations after calls were made. Statewide, 24,772 children were identified.
In Urbana, the rules of mandated reporting were a hot topic among parents at Thomas Paine Elementary School during a Feb. 7 meeting at the school.
Parents met to discuss the news that Jon White, a Thomas Paine second-grade teacher, was charged with three counts of predatory criminal sexual assault to a minor in Champaign County. But their questions went beyond "Did he do it?"
Parents wanted to know why, if a parent complained to the school district about White's behavior in November, it wasn't reported to the Illinois DCFS, which runs the hot line.
In a separate interview, a mother whose children went to school in Normal wanted the same kind of answers after her complaints about White's behavior: Why weren't calls made?
Making the right calls
Under the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, reporters must sign a DCFS document stating their responsibilities.
That means they are required to report or cause a report to be made to the Child Abuse Hotline number (800-25A-BUSE) whenever there is reasonable cause to believe that a child known to them in their professional or official capacity might be abused or neglected.
"People have a hard time with the definition of 'reasonable cause to believe,'" Williams said. In making that decision, "They're asking professionals to use the sum total of their experiences."
To help clarify and train reporters, DCFS offers year-round free training "to all professionals in child-caring roles, and we encourage organizations large and small to contact us," DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said.
If the reporter does not report an incident, he or she could be found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor and could have his or her license to practice suspended or revoked. Guidelines for mandated reporters are online at www.state.il.us/dcfs.
Marlowe said there is little gray area for reporters.
"If there is any doubt, the call should be placed. Investigators are trained to make careful, objective judgments, and a caller to the hot line is not asked to determine whether an act has occurred," he said.
Robin Beach, vice president and chief operating officer at Planned Parenthood of East Central Illinois, said the majority of staff members at the organization are mandated reporters – and some have had to call the Child Abuse Hotline.
If a minor makes a disclosure about an incident, Beach said, "our staff will get any necessary information from a healthcare standpoint."
The goal is not to prove the case, she said, but to provide enough information to hotline workers to make a report.
"We want our staff to err on the side of protecting our clients," she said.
Though patient information is normally confidential, evidence of physical or sexual abuse – or a disclosure from an underage patient – would require staff to give certain details to the hot line social worker.
However, Beach stresses, only the necessary information to make the report would be passed on.
"We would never hand over the medical records," she said.
At Bottenfield Elementary School in Champaign, Principal Barbara Daly said that she's received training on mandated reporting and has taught her staff about the responsibilities. Daly said as part of that training, staff learn "about what 'reasonable cause' means.
"There's ethics behind making a valid report," she said. "It's just not a wishy-washy thing."
Though mandated reporters must identify themselves, that information is confidential. Non-reporters may call anonymously.
Joan Fiesta is a University of Illinois police sergeant and regional director of radKIDS, a national education program where, Fiesta said, "the goal is to build a child's confidence to escape danger."
When working with children in radKIDS, she said, sometimes a child will disclose an incident of abuse.
"The first thing that we do is make sure that the child is safe," Fiesta said. "If I find out that no report has been made, then I call the police and make the call (to the hot line).
She said making the calls can be tough.
"Sometimes people feel guilty because they have to call the hot line," she said. "People kind of feel, 'Well, is it our business?'"
Under the rules of mandated reporting, she said, the answer's a clear "yes."
Once a mandated reporter makes a call, a hot line social worker picks up and takes down information – age, location and description of the suspicion or incident – about the alleged victim and perpetrator.
Sometimes the hot line worker decides the information doesn't warrant a report, and that call is logged.
In fiscal year 2006, fewer than half the calls in the state resulted in reports.
From there, the mandated reporter's responsibility is typically complete, and that reporter "cannot be held liable for damages under criminal or civil law," according to the DCFS.
"It's the responsibility of the DCFS to handle the investigation. Mandated reporters are kept informed," Marlowe said, "but are not expected to assume the role of an investigator."
Investigators might act immediately in cases of imminent threat to the child. Otherwise, the investigations begin within 24 hours, according to the DCFS.
In Champaign County, when children need to be interviewed, they'll often go to the Children's Advocacy Center in Urbana, which frequently works with police and DCFS.
"Child abuse investigation is a very specialized field," Williams said, adding that interviewers receive extensive training. "The interviewers are sensitive to not ask leading questions."
Williams says that when mandated reporters attempt to investigate on their own, they can do more harm than good.
"You could hinder any subsequent investigation," he said. "Someone who's not trained to do that could do harm to the child psychologically, without meaning to."
The center itself is meant to comfort children in difficult times, with a room full of toys and activities and separate interviewing rooms kept sparse and comfortable. No "Law & Order" metal tables; these rooms have plush couches and windows looking out onto fields.
They also have cameras so police and other relevant parties can watch the interview, sometimes feeding the interviewer questions through earphones.
The atmosphere serves the purpose of calming and focusing the child on the interview, as well as keeping the number of interviews to a minimum. The child might not even need to meet the police officer, Williams said.
"At the Child Advocacy Center, far and away most of our cases are of child sexual abuse," Williams said. "We're trying to reduce any kind of trauma that the child may have to go through."
To that end, families can receive contacts for other local resources to help at the CDC.
But for much of that discovery to occur, mandated reporters need to start the process.
"Those are never easy calls to make, but it is important for those charged with caring for children to call if there is any reason for suspicion," Marlowe said.
Said Williams: "If you're just not sure, make the call. The balance is always going to be tipped in favor of the child ... and I think that's the clear intent of this law."