Reporting Suspected Child Abuse

1. Who is a mandated reporter?

Mandated reporters include medical practitioners and technicians, public and private school teachers and administrators, guidance counselors; attendance officers, psychologists, social workers, day care workers, foster parents, police and court officers, firefighters and others. (For a complete list, see c.119, ß51A, which is attached.)

2. Are mandated reporters liable if they fail to report suspected abuse or neglect?

Yes. A mandated reporter may be subject to a criminal fine of up to $1,000 for failure to report suspected abuse or neglect of a child under 18.

3. How are abuse or neglect defined under c. 119, ß51A?

Abuse means the non-accidental commission of any act against a child which causes or creates a substantial risk of physical injury or emotional injury; serious physical injury to a child or the commission of a sex offense against a child as defined by the criminal laws of the Commonwealth, or any sexual contact between a child and a caretaker.

Neglect includes the failure by a caretaker either deliberately, through negligence or inability, to take actions necessary to provide a child with minimally adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision, emotional stability and growth, or other essential care.

4. What is “reasonable cause to believe” that a child under 18 is suffering from abuse or neglect?

Reasonable cause to believe means known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect. A suspicion of child abuse is sufficient to trigger the requirements of ß51A.

5. What information must be included in the report to DSS under Section 51A?

The report is to contain the name and address of the child and his/her parents or other persons responsible for the child’s care, if known; the child’s age; the child’s sex; the nature and extent of the child’s injuries, abuse, maltreatment, or neglect, including any evidence of prior injuries, abuse, maltreatment or neglect; the circumstances under which the reporter first became aware of the child’s injuries, abuse or neglect; what action, if any was taken to assist the child; the name of the person making the report; and any other information that the reporter believes might be helpful in establishing the cause of the abuse or neglect.

6. Will the name of the school staff member who reports the suspected abuse or neglect be released to the child’s parent or guardian?

DSS’s regulations prohibit the release of the reporter’s name by its staff to the family or alleged perpetrator of abuse or neglect. However, if DSS refers a report to the District Attorney (DA) or police, they will receive the reporter’s name. DSS can be required to release the name of a reporter in response to a court order. In addition, the child’s situation may make it readily apparent to a parent or guardian who is the most likely person to have made the report. For this reason, it is recommended that the reporter notify parents that s/he has made a report as required by law.

7. May a school or school district establish a protocol for school staff members to report suspected child abuse or neglect to a school administrator rather than directly to DSS?

Yes. Section 51A says that a mandated reporter who is a staff member in a school may make the report either directly to DSS or to the person in charge of the school (or that person’s designee), in which case that individual is responsible for making the oral and written report to DSS. We encourage schools and school districts to develop child abuse reporting protocols, both for efficiency and so that the school administration is informed about children who may be at risk. Once a protocol is developed, the school or school district administration is responsible for ensuring that (1) the protocol is known to and understood by school staff (for example, by including it in staff handbooks and providing reminders to staff at the beginning of each school year), and (2) that it is followed.

8. What if the mandated reporter who reports to the person in charge of the school or under a school protocol is uncertain whether the report has reached DSS?

A mandated reporter who has followed the school protocol and reported suspected child abuse to a school administrator, but is uncertain that the report has reached DSS, may also make the report directly to DSS. G.L.c.119, ß51A prohibits any employer of a mandated reporter from discharging or retaliating against the employee for making a report to DSS in good faith under the statute.

9. What happens when a report is filed with DSS?

Initially, the DSS social worker who takes the report of abuse or neglect screens it. If there is reasonable cause to believe that a child is being abused or neglected by a “caretaker,” the report will be “screened-in” for investigation. A report that is screen-out because it does not involve a caretaker will be referred to the DA and local police, if it involves criminal child abuse by a non-caretaker.

If there is reasonable cause to believe that the child is in immediate danger of further abuse or neglect, DSS must begin its investigation within 2 hours and complete it within 24 hours. Otherwise, the investigation must begin within 2 calendar days and be completed within 10 calendar days.

10. Who is a caretaker under DSS regulations?

A caretaker means a parent, stepparent, guardian, or other household member, or other individual who is entrusted with responsibility for a child’s health or welfare in the home, relative’s home, school setting, foster or group home, day care center, or a residential facility. In addition to parents or household members it includes teachers, babysitters, school teachers, school bus drivers, camp counselors, foster or day care providers.

11. When are reports of abuse or neglect referred by DSS to the DA or Police?

G.L. c. 119, ß51B(4) requires DSS to notify the DA’s and police in the town where the alleged abuse or neglect occurred and in the town where the child resides when it receives a report of a child’s death; criminal sexual assault on a child (including statutory rape); sexual exploitation of a child; brain damage, substantial impairment or disfigurement of a child; or serious physical abuse, involving fractures, burns, injuries requiring life support, or physical evidence of sexual or physical abuse, where immediate investigation is necessary to preserve evidence.

12. If DSS does not substantiate (support) a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, is the school staff person who made the report liable in any way?

No. The statute provides for immunity from civil or criminal suit for any report made in good faith, provided the reporter was not the cause of the abuse or neglect.

13. Will reporting suspected child abuse by a parent or guardian to DSS impair the relationship between the school and the family, or risk further abuse to the child?

While there is some risk that a report might affect a school’s relationship with a family, families usually understand that the reporter was required by Section 51A to file the report. In those cases where the child is being abused by a family member, prompt reporting is the best way to provide more immediate protection to the child. If the reporter has concerns for the immediate safety of the child, s/he should make that known to DSS, so that emergency action can be taken to protect the child.

14. When a 51A report is filed, how does DSS inform the reporter of its investigation and the outcome of the case?

DSS will notify the reporter of the decision to screen in or out their report. If DSS has screened in the report for investigation, the reporter will be notified of the outcome of the completed investigation, even when DSS does not support the allegation.

15. If the alleged perpetrator of abuse to a student is a school employee, should the matter be reported to DSS under G.L.c.119, ß51A? Should it also be investigated by the school authorities? Should it be reported to the police?

Yes, the matter must be reported to DSS. DSS will refer allegations of criminal abuse to the DA and police.

In addition, school authorities have a general duty to take reasonable measures to protect the safety of their students, and under federal and state civil rights laws a school or school district may be liable for sexual abuse or sexual harassment of students by school employees. For these reasons, besides reporting to DSS, school officials must take prompt and effective steps to investigate and resolve any allegation that a school employee has sexually abused or sexually harassed a student.

If school officials believe that criminal laws may have been violated, they should report those matters to the police, particularly if the incident may involve criminal violations not included under ß51B, such as assault and battery.

16. If the alleged perpetrator is a peer (i.e., another student) should the matter be reported to DSS under G.L.c.119, ß51A? Should it also be investigated by the school authorities? Should it be reported to the police?

School authorities are required to report incidents of suspected abuse or neglect under ß51A, even if they involve other students. DSS, however, will limit its investigation to allegations of abuse or neglect involving caretakers, such as teachers, principals, bus drivers, parents or baby sitters. If the reported incident involves a matter that is required to be referred to the DA under ß51B, DSS will “screen-out” the report, but will refer the report to the DA and police.

As in the situation described in question 15, above, school authorities also have a legal obligation to protect the safety and civil rights of students. For example, under the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds (Title IX), a school is liable for student-to-student sexual harassment if the harassment is severe, persistent or pervasive; the school knows or should know of it, and the school fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. Therefore, besides reporting to DSS, school officials must take prompt and effective steps to investigate and resolve any allegation that a student has sexually abused or sexually harassed another student.

If the incident also involves criminal conduct, such as physical abuse, violation of a 209A order, assault or rape, school officials should also report the incident to the police.

17. May a public school release student record information to DSS in cases of suspected child abuse or neglect?

Yes. G.L.c. 119, ß51B requires a mandated reporter to disclose to DSS any information that it determines is relevant to its investigation of a case of suspected abuse or neglect, including student record information. The release of this information is specifically authorized in the Student Records Regulations at 603 CMR 23.07(4)[c] and [e].

18. May DSS social workers who are investigating a case of suspected child abuse or neglect interview staff or children at school?

G.L.c.119, ß51B requires school staff to cooperate with a DSS investigation of an allegation of abuse or neglect involving a student at their school. Information provided by school staff is often vital to determining if a child has in fact suffered abuse or neglect. Section 51B does not address interviewing of the child at school, but rather provides that the child shall be seen at home. However, the Departments of Education and Social Services have consistently counseled school districts that they should cooperate with DSS investigators when the circumstances of the case necessitate interviewing the child at school. We have suggested that such interviews be conducted with the presence of a teacher or other school personnel to provide help and understanding to the child. We have also discouraged school districts from notifying parents or guardians of a DSS interview or investigation where the child could be placed at risk of further abuse or neglect.

 

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