In the aftermath of the high-profile Jerry Sandusky trial involving Penn State University, the nation has collectively experienced a heightened awareness of child abuse, physical and sexual, and the moral responsibility to report suspected abuse cases.
Questions such as “how to identify abuse,” “what is an individual’s responsibility,” and “what are the necessary steps in reporting” are all concerns that have been brought to the public’s attention as a result of this tragic event.
Rustin Smith, an associate attorney with Stewart, Melvin, & Frost, one of Northeast Georgia’s oldest and largest law firm, offers insight on this subject.
Question: The Jerry Sandusky trial seems to have raised a lot of questions among non-profit agencies over just how far staff and board members should go in reporting any hint of suspected child abuse or other similar cases. Have you heard any of these concerns among the local non-profit agencies in our local area, particularly those who deal with children and youth?
Rustin: I have heard a lot of talk about this subject locally, particularly as it relates to non-profits who deal with children and youth. The Sandusky trial has definitely raised local public awareness and concerns regarding child abuse.
Of recent concern to churches and other non-profits is the new Georgia law (House Bill 1176) which went into effect on July 1. It requires pastors and all volunteers of organizations to report suspected child abuse to the Department of Human Services Division of Family and Child Services (DFACS) or the police within 24 hours.
If you fail to report within 24 hours, and it’s later proven that you suspected or should have suspected child abuse, you can face a fine and up to a one-year jail sentence. Georgia is taking a much stronger stance against child abuse, so organizations should advise their volunteers and adjust their reporting policies accordingly.
Question: What does the law require in regard to reporting suspected child abuse – and at what point should it be reported?
Rustin: The law does not provide specific guidelines for how to detect child abuse but numerous medical publications provide information on how to spot possible signs of abuse.
For example, behavioral changes in a child such as withdrawn behavior or a loss of appetite may indicate something is wrong. It is equally important to notice the suspected abuser’s actions as well. For example, immature behavior or inappropriate touching.
Several of these warning signs are subjective and fall into a “gray area,” so an organization may want to identify specific actions in a written policy that might indicate potential abuse and should be reported.
Every level of an organization, from staff to board members, must report suspected abuse immediately and directly to DFACS. Unfortunately, the hierarchy of some of these organizations may create a delay in reporting abuse, which could cause more harm. So, boards should recognize the urgency in dealing with child-abuse situations as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Question: Who is responsible for reporting child abuse and what are the potential consequences for not reporting?
Rustin: Morally, anyone who suspects abuse is responsible for reporting. Legally, it is basically any employee or volunteer of a business or organization, whether it’s public, private, non-profit, or for-profit, that provides some service to children.
If abuse goes unreported, an organization and its employees or volunteers are also at risk for a civil claim of negligence because they have a duty to report under this law and neglect to fulfill that duty if they fail to report.
So, the punishment for not reporting suspected abuse can be handled in either the criminal or civil courts.
Criminal action usually involves DFACS, whose purpose is to push for further government investigation, placing the case in the hands of law enforcement and prosecutors. It is not a direct charge against the abuser by the reporter and shouldn’t be viewed as one.
Civil action involves a direct claim against the abuser or person who failed to report by the victim or the victim’s family, and does not include a government investigation. However, evidence from a related criminal investigation may be used as evidence in the civil case.
Organizations should consider developing a written policy that clarifies the guidelines and procedures for identifying and reporting child abuse. It is in everyone’s interest to be informed of when and how to report child abuse so that every child is protected.