Every church should endeavor to provide a safe environment for every family and child to attend. A part of this safety preparedness is knowing the laws regarding child abuse reporting. These laws vary from state to state. Here are a few items we recently covered with our church staff:
1. How Massachusetts Defines Abuse, Neglect, Physical Injury & Emotional Injury – Under the Department of Children and Families regulations (110 CMR, section 2.00): Abuse means: The non-accidental commission of any act by a caretaker upon a child under age 18 which causes, or creates a substantial risk of, physical or emotional injury; or an act by a caretaker involving a child that constitutes a sexual offense under the laws of the Commonwealth; or any sexual contact between a caretaker and a child under the care of that individual. This definition is not dependent upon location (i.e., abuse can occur while the child is in an out-of-home or in-home setting).
Neglect means: Failure by a caretaker, either deliberately or through negligence or inability, to take those actions necessary to provide a child with minimally adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision, emotional stability and growth, or other essential care; provided, however, that such inability is not due solely to inadequate economic resources or solely to the existence of a handicapping condition. This definition is not dependent upon location (i.e., neglect can occur while the child is in an out-of-home or in-home setting).
Physical Injury means: Death; or fracture of a bone, a subdural hematoma, burns, impairment of any organ, and any other such nontrivial injury; or soft tissue swelling or skin bruising, depending upon such factors as the child’s age, circumstances under which the injury occurred and the number and location of bruises; or addiction to a drug or drugs at birth; or failure to thrive.
Emotional Injury means: An impairment to or disorder of the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by observable and substantial reduction in the child’s ability to function within a normal range of performance and behavior.
2. You are a Mandated Reporter – The state of Massachusetts describes mandated reporters in part by saying, “Clergy members, including ordained or licensed leaders of any church or religious body, persons performing official duties on behalf of a church or religious body, or persons employed by a religious body to supervise, educate, coach, train or counsel a child on a regular basis.”
3. Clergy-penitent Privilege Probably Doesn’t Apply – Typically privilege ordinarily applies only to courtroom testimonies and depositions, and not to a statutory requirement to report to a state agency. This means if someone admits to you that they are actively abusing a child, you must report it, even if that information was given in a pastoral counseling session.
4. When You Become Aware the Clock Starts Ticking – You are required to report the incident immediately orally and “as a mandated reporter you are also required by law to mail or fax a written report to the Department within 48 hours after making the oral report. The form for filing this report can be obtained from a local DCF Area Office or from the DCF website: www.mass.gov/dcf.”
5. Massachusetts Process for Reporting Abuse – “When you suspect that a child is being abused and/or neglected, you should immediately telephone the local DCF Area Office and ask for the Screening Unit. Offices are staffed between 9 am and 5 pm weekdays. To make a report at any other time, including after 5 pm and on weekends and holidays, please call the Child-At-Risk Hotline at 800-792-5200.” The two closest offices to us are: • Cape Ann, Salem 978-825-3800 • Lynn 781-477-1600.
6. Having Said #4 & #5 Above, Also Follow the Church Chain of Command – “Mandated Reporters who are staff members of medical or other public or private institutions, schools or facilities, must either notify the Department directly or notify the person in charge of the institution, school or facility, or his/her designee, who then becomes responsible for filing the report.” In other words, your volunteers should report to you immediately, and you should report to the Executive Pastor immediately, who in turn will notify the Senior Pastor.
7. Parents/Caretakers Can’t Stop You From Reporting – If I parent asks you not to report something, says they already have, or in any way tries to get you from reporting an incident you should still contact the Executive Pastor. There are absolutely no exceptions to this rule.
8. Limited Legal Immunity for Individuals Who Make Good-Faith Reports – If you make a report in good faith the state of Massachusetts gives you legal immunity, even if you what you report ends up being found to be untrue. This means you can’t be sued for reporting child abuse if you genuinely believe you are doing it to protect a child.
9. Confidentiality of a Mandated Reporters Identity – “DCF regulations do not allow the Department to disclose the name of a reporter unless ordered by a court or required by statute such as when the Department is required to provide the 51A report to the District Attorney or other law enforcement (CMR 12.00 etseq.).” This means you can make a report, and the person you are reporting doesn’t have to know it was you.
10. Failure to Report – “Any mandated reporter who fails to make required oral and written reports can be punished by a fine of up to $1,000. Any mandated reporter who willfully fails to report child abuse and/or neglect that resulted in serious bodily injury or death can be punished by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 2½ years in jail, and be reported to the person’s professional licensing authority.” You may also face civil charges, and you may also open our church up to civil charges as well. Civil charges mean legal fees and big awards if found guilty.
11. What To Do if an Adult Reveals they were Abused as a Minor. This is actually a tricky one. Some states require a mandated reporter to make a report even if the person reporting the abuse is now over the age of 18, and even if many years have passed. Our current policy is that you should always contact the Executive Pastor if something like this arises.
Adapted from Child Abuse Reporting Laws: 21 Facts Church Leaders Should Know by Richard Hammer in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2018 edition & http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dcf/can-mandated-reporters-guide.pdf