Spend time around kids? You might be legally responsible to report abuse.

Every spring during Child Abuse Prevention Month, thousands of blue flags appear on the lawn of the Harrisburg State Capitol. Each tiny flag, lovingly placed by staff and volunteers of Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance (PFSA), commemorates a substantiated case of child abuse in Pennsylvania during the previous year of available data. This past April, there were 4,593 were planted to represent substantiated cases from 2020. It’s a sobering sight—made more so by the 73 black flags that were nestled this year among the blue ones. They represent children who died as a result of abuse.

The flags visualize the hard reality of child abuse, but also remind us what a difference intervention can make for a child experiencing abuse. For those children commemorated by the black flags, intervention never happened, or arrived too late to save a life.

PFSA flag-planting event on April 1, 2022

The blue flags, however, represent those children who were seen and heard, and whose lives were potentially saved by an intervention.

How does that intervention happen? For many child victims, it begins the moment an adult sees or hears something concerning, and makes a report to ChildLine—the child abuse reporting hotline in Pennsylvania. Indeed, one of the most powerful tools we have to keep kids safe is what we call the mandated reporter.

What’s that? Mandated reporters are members of the community who are required by Pennsylvania law to report suspected child abuse. The first people who come to mind as mandated reporters are teachers, coaches, and other school employees. But in December 2014, the state law defining who is a mandated reporter expanded to include not just employees of child-focused work settings like schools or camp programs, but also consultants, volunteers interacting with kids, and some home-based care providers.

These changes left folks with a few questions:

  • Who exactly is a mandated reporter?
  • How do I know if I am one?
  • If I’m a mandated reporter, what exactly does that mean?
  • I want to help—but what do I do?

We have Sunday School teachers who have taught for maybe fifty years, and starting in 2015, they are now required by law to report suspected child abuse or be potentially charged with failure to report.

Meet Haven Evans, Director of Programs at Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance (PFSA), one of our partner organizations in the fight against child abuse. Haven has more than twelve years of experience in the child welfare field, and is an expert on Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law (CPSL). Haven oversees PFSA’s program for mandated reporter training, including creating curriculum that explains the law and how someone should be prepared to respond if they suspect abuse.  

Haven Evans, Director of Programs, PFSA

The revised law on mandated reporting was a huge shift, and it’s something that people are still seeking additional guidance and training for. You don’t come across suspected child abuse every day, and the responsibility to report can bring up a lot of questions for volunteers and professionals.

We reached out to Haven to help answer some of those questions, including the most obvious one:

Who is a mandated reporter?

Many of us know that teachers, coaches, and child-care workers are mandated reporters. These professionals are responsible for children as part of their employment. Other obvious mandated reporters include doctors, nurses, and anyone licensed or certified to practice in a health-related field. But here are some other mandated reporter roles that may not come to mind right away:

  • Anyone who provides a program, activity or service sponsored by a school. This includes youth camp/program, a recreational camp or program; sports or athletic program, outreach program, enrichment program and a troop, club or similar organization;
  • An individual paid or unpaid who has direct contact with children on the basis of the individual’s role as an integral part of a regularly scheduled program, activity or service;
  • A coroner or funeral director;
  • Clergyman, priest, rabbi, minister, Christian science practitioner, religious healer or spiritual leader of any regularly established church or other religious organization;
  • An employee of a public library who has direct contact with children in the course of employment;
  • An independent contractor who provides a program, activity or service to an agency, institution, organization or other entity, including a school or regularly established religious organization, that is responsible for the care, supervision, guidance or control of children (but does not include administrative or support personnel who do not have direct contact with children);
  • An attorney affiliated with an agency, institution, organization or other entity, including a school or regularly established religious organization that is responsible for the care, supervision, guidance or control of children.
  • An emergency medical services provider certified by the Department of Health;
  • A foster parent.
  • An adult family member who is a person responsible for a child’s welfare and provides services to a child in a family living home, community home for individuals with an intellectual disability, or host home for children.

In short, if you are a professional OR a volunteer who is responsible for or in direct contact with children, Pennsylvania considers you a mandated reporter.

If you’re just discovering your mandated reporter status, you might feel a little overwhelmed. Maybe this is a bit more responsibility than you thought you were taking on when you volunteered to read at the library. And you’re right—being a mandated reporter is a big responsibility. But you aren’t alone. Haven, and others who care deeply, have done incredible work to make sure mandated reporters in PA—like you—have everything they need to feel confident, prepared, and supported.

You’re an important ally to the kids in our state. Let’s take a closer look at what that allyship looks like!

What are a mandated reporter’s responsibilities?

As a mandated reporter, you are required to make a report if you have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is being abused.  And in Pennsylvania, there are two different ways for mandated reporters to report abuse.

The first is to call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313. When you choose this method, you must also submit a written form called a CY-47 within 48 hours of making your report.

Alternatively, you can report abuse online at the Child Welfare Information Solution website.

It’s important to note that choosing one of these two reporting methods is required by law—alerting a police officer, school official, or your employer doesn’t qualify as reporting. You must either call ChildLine or file an electronic report with CWIS to fulfill your responsibility.

How do I know when to report?

When in doubt, make a report,” says Haven. “If you’re not sure, or you don’t have a lot of details, but you do have that gut feeling that something just isn’t right—make that report.

The key thing you’re looking for is a reasonable cause to suspect. Would a reasonable person suspect that what they are seeing or hearing could be child abuse?” Haven goes on to clarify: “It’s very important that mandated reporters NOT try to do the investigation to determine if abuse is happening or not. They should NOT be asking questions past the point of having a reasonable cause to suspect.

Sometimes, you don’t have enough information for a reasonable suspicion. For example, if the child says ‘I’m scared, I don’t want to go home,’ you’d absolutely need to ask a few questions. Maybe they got in trouble with their parents and don’t want to be grounded. Maybe they watched a scary movie and think their room is haunted. OR it could be abuse. A mandated reporter can, and should, ask questions until they have a reasonable suspicion of abuse. But if you press beyond that, you run the risk of tainting the child’s memory.

You don’t have to know for sure that abuse is happening. You just have to have a suspicion. Don’t overthink it. Make that report.

What happens if a mandated reporter fails to report?

When a mandated reporter has a reasonable cause to suspect abuse and fails to report it, there are legal consequences. “The key here is willful failure to report. Mandated reporters are expected to find out what their responsibilities are, and sometimes receive training. The legal aspect comes into play when a mandated reporter has a reasonable cause to suspect abuse and they make a decision not to report it. And the penalties for that willful failure to report range from a second degree misdemeanor up to a first degree felony depending on the severity of the case.” A mandated reporter who suspects abuse and chooses not to report it in one of Pennsylvania’s two available reporting options might face arrest, trial, fines, and even jail time.

How can mandated reporters learn to recognize the signs of abuse?

PFSA offers free training for all mandated reporters in Pennsylvania. In a recent op-ed for the Courier Times, Haven writes: “As a mandated reporter for the past 20 years, I know the benefit of quality training. There is no replacement for learning from trainers that have dedicated their entire careers to learning and applying the Child Protective Services Law and keeping children safe. […] Our training titled “Recognizing and Reporting Child Abuse” teaches mandated reporters what child abuse is, equips them to recognize the warning signs, and clarifies when and how to report suspected child abuse. An additional training titled “Responding to Disclosures of Child Abuse” helps mandated reporters know how best to respond at the time a child makes a disclosure of suspected child abuse. Both curriculums are available live and daily—at no cost—to any mandated reporter in Pennsylvania.

Mandated reporter training doesn’t just help with identifying future suspected abuse. Sometimes, participants realize that they may have been missing the signs of abuse in children and teens already in their care. As Haven reports: “Many times, in the middle of training, a participant will say ‘Oh! I never knew that those were the warning signs for sex trafficking. I know a child who is exhibiting those signs. I thought they were just acting out, but now I’m rethinking this, and am seeing it from a different perspective.

If I'm not a mandated reporter, what can I do?

While mandated reporters are required by law to report abuse, anyone with reasonable cause to suspect abuse can follow the same steps to report. If you are a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or community member who regularly interacts with children, take the time to familiarize yourself with the indicators of abuse found on PFSA’s website.

And remember—when in doubt, make the report. You don’t have to be sure. You don’t have to be a detective. If your gut says something is off, if the signs are there, make the call.  If you’re wrong, it might cause some mild inconvenience. But if you’re right, it may do something significantly more important.

It might save a child’s life. And it could be the first step on a journey toward hope and healing after trauma.

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