Professionals' dilemma over child-abuse reporting laws

IN an honest effort to curb child abuse, particularly sexual molestation, states are moving to shore up their reporting laws. Educators, child care workers, psychologists, and other professionals who work with children are often mandated by statute to contact authorities when they suspect instances of abuse.

But what if their evaluations are wrong? Are these authorities themselves subject to legal action? And what happens when such required disclosure violates the confidentiality code - such as that between a medical doctor and a patient or a clergyman and a parishioner?

Disputes of these kinds are increasingly finding their way to the courts - with various resolutions.

Last year, for example, a California appellate court - in a key test of that state's Child Abuse Reporting Law - ruled that physicians who report instances of suspected child abuse have absolute immunity from civil liability, even if the report turns out to be false.

The case stemmed from a malpractice suit filed by the parents of a 12-year-old girl against three physicians and a hospital. The parents reported that their daughter may have been a victim of sexual abuse. The couple alleged that the doctors had acted negligently - and without reasonable suspicion - in making such charges and that the family had suffered emotional distress as a result.

California law requires that those who work with children report suspected child abuse ``immediately'' to a child protective agency. It also provides that reporting parties cannot be held ``civilly or criminally liable'' for their disclosures.

Other cases in California confronted the issues of who must report suspected abuse and whether a delay in reporting constitutes a violation of the law.

For instance, a Mormon bishop was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing for failing to tell police that one of his congregation had been accused of molesting young boys, after it was determined by a city attorney that because the bishop did not work directly with children, he should be exempt from the state's reporting requirement.

In another case, however, a Los Angeles school administrator was found guilty of failing to inform city and county law enforcement agents of suspected child abuse within the 36 hours required by state law. He was given two years' probation but sentenced to spend 400 hours instructing other educators on the child-abuse reporting law.

The mandate to disclose suspected child abuse varies with geographical jurisdiction. Many states, among them Alabama, specify that there be ``reasonable cause'' to suspect that a child is being abused or neglected. Some states, including Oklahoma, key their laws exclusively to physical injury. Others, such as Kansas, specify physical, mental, or emotional abuse or neglect. Penalties range from liability for damages to fines or imprisonment or both.

An article in the June issue of the American Psychological Association's Monitor points to the dilemma that specialists in the children's field face in balancing their roles as advocates and therapists ``between the law that requires them to report suspected abuse and their ethical code which demands confidentiality.''

``Because psychologists are often a primary source of help for both abuser and abused, they may be forced to choose between what they believe is best for the client and risking arrest for failing to report abuse,'' writes Laurie Denton in the ABA Monitor article.

A Michigan court recently ruled that the right of privacy protected a marriage counselor who had been charged with failing to report a teen-age girl's allegation that her stepfather had touched her in a sexual manner.

The counselor who worked with the entire family believed that the charge was exaggerated or untrue. It was, however, reported to a social service agency through a school official in whom the girl confided. A lawsuit against the counselor resulted.

Circuit Court Judge Fred Mester said that a family in therapy has an expectation of privacy that may only be impinged on when there is a compelling state interest.

A Thursday column

Last week's ``Justice'' column mentioned a lawsuit, based on California's Child Abuse Reporting Law, in which the parents of a 12-year-old girl were suing three physicians and a hospital. It was incorrectly reported that the parents said their daughter may have been a victim of sexual abuse; it was the physicians who had reported such suspicions. The Monitor regrets the error.

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