Mandatory Reporter

The recent child sex abuse scandals involving Penn State and Syracuse University have raised awareness about the importance of reporting. I have recently seen billboards pop up in my city reinforcing the message that “It’s okay to tell”. And one of the repercussions of these scandals has been an energized campaign to pass legislation requiring every adult to be a mandatory reporter of child abuse. A bill about this very issue is currently being debated in the U.S. Senate. Individual states are also highlighting Penn State in efforts to make reporting child abuse mandatory within their own borders.

It’s a difficult, emotional issue, to be sure.

As a health care professional, I am already a mandatory reporter. This means that if I see or suspect abuse or neglect of a child or vulnerable adult (meaning an older adult or someone with disabilities), I am required to report it to my local protective services agency. In my job as a community health nurse, I am often called upon by protective service workers to do home visits and help assess the health status of reported abuse/neglect/self-neglect victims.

But I must say I have mixed feelings about this universal reporting requirement. Had mandatory reporting laws been in place, maybe Mike McCreary would have spoken louder and more vehemently. Maybe Joe Paterno would have pushed harder. Maybe other witnesses of other horrific abuses would have called and reported what they saw if they feared the legal consequences of not doing so.

Or maybe not. The issue of abuse and neglect is not as cut and dry as one might think, nor are the consequences of making such a report. Investigations can be traumatic for the alleged victim. False allegations, even those made with honest intentions, can ruin lives and relationships. And reporting suspicions of abuse or neglect is not clear-cut, either. Some individuals may be quick to report “gut feelings”, while others may want more proof before they refer to an investigative agency. What level of suspicion would be needed to legally require making a report?

I’m not saying Sandusky didn’t abuse those boys – that is a legal matter outside of my scope. If he did commit sexual abuse, I am as appalled and disgusted as everyone else. Let me be perfectly clear: sexual acts performed on an underage child by an adult are not okay. Laying hands on a child is and should be criminal. And those brave individuals who have spoken out about their horrific experiences are testament to the emotional and physical trauma of childhood abuse. The folks I have assessed over the past year, the ones who were hurt so brutally by caregivers and family members they trusted, stay with me today. I can vividly see their faces and recall their stories.

But the act of making an accusation is powerful. And the act of investigating a report is difficult for everyone involved. If every adult in this country was legally bound to report a suspicion, would that not flood the already overwhelmed protective services agencies with referrals and compromise the time and energy they have to investigate true allegations? Would it not delay investigations unnecessarily? The protective service workers I know are already stretched, and every year we hear threats of budget cuts. Can an overworked system handle the influx that would likely result from this legislation? Will lawmakers put their money where their mouth is and fund the agencies adequately to keep up with the demand?

Some people might disagree with my concerns, and point to Penn State and the Catholic Church as prime examples. But the states that already do mandate that all adults report child abuse have had mixed results. Would a national policy really improve this tragic situation?

I honestly don’t know.

What do you think? Have you ever had to report abuse or neglect? Did you base your report on suspicion or did you look for more evidence before making the call? If you want to share your own story, please remember to respect privacy and confidentiality.

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