The responsibility for preventing children from being abused can arguably rest with anyone who interacts with them. However, recognizing child abuse is not as simple as one might imagine. True, there are the obvious cases such as a child who always seems to have an inexplicable bruise somewhere, but there are many other instances of physical abuse that are not as obvious. Federal, state, and local agencies work to provide information to raise levels of awareness through public service programs.
Laws have been enacted nationwide that identify certain professionals who regularly work with children and have designated these individuals “mandatory reporters.” Among these professions are teachers, law enforcement officers, social workers, health care professionals, child care providers, counselors and other mental health care providers. There are laws in 18 states and Puerto Rico that make it a requirement for any person to report suspected child abuse regardless of their profession. The statutory procedure to be followed in the case of institutional reporting makes it the responsibility of any staff member who witnesses the alleged child abuse to notify the head of that institution. It is then the duty of the institution head to make an official report to the authorities.
The criteria for identifying incidents of abuse are nonspecific. The wording in the law typically requires that a report be made when the reporter suspects or has reason to suspect that a child has been abused. However, one of the difficulties preventing many reports from being made is the reluctance to report without proof that the suspicious injuries were caused by abuse and not as a result of an accident. Other examples of why reports are not as forthcoming are choosing to intervene without involving the authorities; fear of getting involved; fear that filing a report will make matters worse; fear of retaliation from the family; and belief that someone else will make a report. According to the American Humane Association, all states have laws that are designed to protect reporters from liability when the report is made in good faith.
Conversely, civil and criminal penalties are imposed by 48 States against mandatory reporters of child abuse who fail to make the obligatory report. Additionally, there are also penalties in 29 States against anyone who knowingly makes a false report of child abuse. A January 9, 2014 Courier News article reported that a South Elgin, Illinois woman was convicted of making a false report of child abuse. The woman reportedly told her son to tell police that her ex-husband’s new wife physically abused him. Actions such as these impede the effectiveness of law enforcement to investigate bona fide cases of child abuse, according to Kane County Illionis Assistant State’s Attorneys Andrew Whitfield and Debra Bree.
There are federal, state and local government agencies with statutory responsibility for the prevention and investigation of this national problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has committed personnel who are responsible for developing programs designed to stop child abuse before it starts. They have made available the Essentials for Childhood initiative, which is a package that proposes different strategies that communities can utilize to promote healthy relationships and environments for children to thrive. Also offered by the CDC is the Essentials for Childhood technical package, which is for communities that are committed to the positive development of children and families with the specific objective to prevent child abuse.
By Mark Politi