Reporting child abuse

As the school year begins, the Missouri NEA Legal Department gets many calls concerning the duty to report child abuse and neglect. Additionally, changes to the Missouri statute have created a reporting requirement that affects all employees of schools. In this article, I will attempt to answer some of the most commonly asked questions. Please remember, however, that if you have specific questions about this issue, you should contact your UniServ director. 

Traditional Mandatory Reporting

Who is required by statute to report abuse or neglect?
In most circumstances related to education employees, the duty to report applies to nurses or other health practitioners, social workers, teachers, principals or other school officials, or other persons with responsibility for the care of children. Although only those listed are required to report suspected abuse or neglect, the statute specifically provides that any other person who suspects abuse or neglect may also report. Therefore, even though the statute does not make it mandatory that a custodian report suspected abuse or neglect, it certainly does not prohibit a custodian from making such a report.

What should be reported?
The statute requires a report be made when a mandatory reporter suspects “that a child has been or may be subjected to abuse or neglect or observes a child being subjected to conditions or circumstances that would reasonably result in abuse or neglect.” This does not require the reporter to have “proof” of abuse or neglect. The reporter must have a reasonable suspicion that abuse or neglect may have occurred or may be occurring.

A child is defined as anyone under the age of 18 years. Therefore, if you have students over the age of 18, there is no mandatory duty to report, nor does the Children’s Division (formerly Division of Family Services) have the jurisdiction to investigate in those situations.

Abuse is defined as: “any physical injury, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse inflicted on a child other than by accidental means..., except that discipline including spanking, administered in a reasonable manner, shall not be construed to be abuse.” Neglect is defined as “failure to provide... the proper or necessary support, education as required by law, nutrition or medical, surgical, or any other care necessary for the child’s well-being.”

To whom should I report?
In the case of education employees who are mandatory reporters, the statute requires the employee to report his or her suspicions to the Children’s Division immediately. The Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 800-392-3738. When you make a hotline call you are given a case number, you should write that number down and keep it in a safe location should you be asked for proof of reporting later.

Additionally, school district policies may require that you report within the school district. All education employees should be familiar with their districts’ policies on this topic. Some districts have a specific person designated as the individual to whom such reports should be made, and it is usually the principal, school nurse, or counselor. If the district has not designated a person to act in this capacity, the employee should make the report to the principal.

Once the employee has reported to the Children’s Division, the employee’s duty to report has been satisfied. However, failure to follow school policy can still lead to discipline.

In all situations when an employee makes a report of abuse or neglect, always keep documentation regarding to whom the report was made, date of report, and a detailed list of suspicions that led you to make the report.

What happens if I don’t report my suspicions?
When a mandatory reporter fails to report suspected abuse or neglect, he or she is guilty of a class A misdemeanor, which means he or she could be sentenced to up to one year in the county jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

There are Missouri court cases that have found that a mandatory reporter who has failed to report suspected abuse or neglect cannot be found liable in a civil lawsuit filed by or on behalf of a child who is the victim of abuse. Therefore, a mandatory reporter who does not fulfill his or her duty to report can be sentenced to jail or fined, but cannot be ordered to pay civil damages to the victim of the abuse.

The New Reporting Requirement

In 2011, the Missouri legislature created a new reporting requirement in addition to the usual mandatory reporting requirements. A report is now required whenever a student reports alleged sexual misconduct on the part of a teacher or other mandatory reporter. In this situation, the report must be made immediately to both the school district and to the Children's Division.

If you find yourself in a situation where you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, remember that it is always better to err on the side of reporting, and in some circumstances, you don’t have a choice.

By Jacquie Shipma, former director of legal services