Children’s Division Hotline details every employee should know

The Children’s Division is the Missouri state agency that is responsible for investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect. Public education employees often end up interacting with the Children’s Division in a few different ways. The one that people are most familiar with is as a mandatory reporter of suspected child neglect and abuse. The other, lesser-known, interaction that public employees have with the Children’s Division is as the subject of an investigation of alleged abuse or neglect. There are thousands of abuse or neglect hotlines against public education employees every year, but fewer than one percent of these hotlines actually result in a finding of abuse or neglect. The process, nonetheless, can still be a scary one.

Who is a mandated reporter?

There are two different statutes that specifically list job titles of individuals who are required to report suspected abuse or neglect to the Children’s Division. Teachers, administrators, nurses, counselors, and a handful of others are explicitly defined as being mandated reporters. It is important to be aware, however, that there is also a general catch-all “other school official.” The definition of “other school official” includes anyone who is responsible for the care and control of students at any time during the day. This means that nearly anyone who works in a school is a mandatory reporter. Bus drivers and aides, cafeteria workers, and even general janitorial staff would be covered if they have some duty that requires monitoring students—lunch or recess duty, for example. In general, if you are not sure whether you are a mandatory reporter, it is best to act as if you are one. Technically, failure to make a report by a mandatory reporter is a misdemeanor crime—so it is better to err on the side of caution.

What is, and is not, required to be reported?

Once you have determined you are a mandatory reporter, the next logical question to ask is, “What do you have to report?” The Children’s Division investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Abuse is defined as any physical injury, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, including victims of sex trafficking. Neglect is defined as failure to provide the proper or necessary support, education, nutrition, surgical or other care necessary for the child’s wellbeing. The mandatory reporter’s duty to report is triggered either if the individual has reasonable cause to suspect the child is a victim of abuse or neglect or if a student reports sexual misconduct by another school employee. Even though the reporting requirement is very broad, there is one set of interactions that almost never meets the definition of child abuse or neglect: student-on-student interactions. Child abuse or neglect is defined to cover situations where someone 18 or older is doing something to someone age 17 or younger. If both of the individuals in the interaction are either over age 18 or under age 17, then Children’s Division will not have jurisdiction to investigate the allegation. In some circumstances where teachers have “hotlined” students who were being violent or sexually inappropriate, those teachers have found themselves to be the subject of the hotline investigation for “failure to supervise.”

Regardless of the fact that student-on-student behavior does not need to be reported to the Children’s Division, you may still need to report the behavior to district administrators beyond normal disciplinary action. If the behavior has elements of discrimination, say students of one race or gender focusing on students of another race or gender, you may need to report the incident under your district’s anti-discrimination and harassment policy. For most districts, this is policy AC, and it should provide the name or title of a “compliance officer” who must receive notification of potentially discriminatory behavior by students. Your district may also have anti-bullying policies that require reports to specific personnel. In these circumstances, merely dealing with the student behavior would not be sufficient to comply with district policy.

What if I am hotlined?

The mere fact that someone has been hotlined does not mean that abuse or neglect has occurred or even that anything improper has happened. The bar to initiate a Children’s Division investigation is very, very low, and it is not uncommon that these investigations are triggered by disgruntled students who either exaggerate some innocuous contact or entirely fabricate a situation. The vast majority of the time, no abuse or neglect is found, and the teacher ends up returning to the classroom. Nevertheless, many districts that are unfamiliar with the Children’s Division process will take a very heavy-handed approach in working with public education employees who are the subject of the allegations. These employees may be placed on administrative leave and escorted out of the building, sometimes by a police officer or school resource officer. During the Children’s Division process, you have a right to representation before speaking with the Children’s Division investigator. Missouri NEA provides attorneys for any members who are hotlined. If you are told that a hotline call has been made against you, contact your UniServ director immediately, and he or she can help you through the process.

by Vincenzo Iuppa, Associate general counsel
Something Better, spring 2020