In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, something did not look quite right. A neighbor was concerned that children were being harmed. She picked up the phone and made a call.
This phone call, to the statewide child abuse hotline, resulted in a response by law enforcement and child welfare professionals, who made an alarming discovery: 12 Amish girls, ranging in age from 6 months to 18 years, were found in the rundown home of a male acquaintance of their parents. Shockingly, the parents had “gifted” their then-14-year-old daughter to this man, who subsequently impregnated her not once but twice. Criminal charges were brought against all three adults, and the children were removed from the home and returned to their Amish community to live and begin the healing process.
“See something, say something” is the rallying cry of the federal Department of Homeland Security. But another department with the acronym “DHS” subscribes to the same philosophy. Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, which runs the state’s child abuse hotline, also provides oversight of each county agency charged with investigating reports of child abuse and neglect and protecting children.
Nationally, each state has its own law or statute governing the definition of child abuse and who is mandated by law to report abuse. Although the laws differ, they all require certain individuals, from designated categories of professionals to all adult citizens, to report if they suspect that a child is being abused or neglected. And all states allow for voluntary reporting of suspected abuse by anyone with reasonable cause to believe a child is being harmed. Investigations are conducted by child welfare agencies to determine whether the allegations are true.
The United States is one of only several countries in the world that mandates the reporting of suspected child abuse. Sadly, the litigiousness of our society often drives behavior, and all too often people don’t want to get involved.
In 2012, in response to the Jerry Sandusky case, the Pennsylvania legislature convened a Task Force on Child Protection to undertake a comprehensive review of the commonwealth’s laws, policies, and procedures regarding the reporting and investigation of child abuse. Based on the recommendations of the task force, 23 new laws were passed to help address some of the inadequacies impairing the child protection system. Changes included refining the definition of child abuse, broadening who is mandated by law to report abuse, requiring training in the recognition and reporting of child maltreatment by licensed professionals across Pennsylvania, and closing existing cracks in the system.
Outrage over the Sandusky case led some to consider mandating every adult in the country to report suspected child abuse and creating a universal reporting system. In the end, the decision was made to focus on broadening the class of mandated reporters while simultaneously requiring training in the recognition and reporting of child abuse. Because research indicates that reports made by professionals are substantiated at more than double the rate for reports by the general public, Pennsylvania wisely chose to invest in improving reporting by those who are required by law to keep a watchful eye on our children.
But this debate raises the question why we are so focused on mandated reporting. Since anyone who suspects that a child is being abused or neglected, no matter where, can just pick up the phone and alert the authorities, why are we as a society having to resort to laws to compel us to do the right thing? When the neighbor made the call to alert law enforcement to those 12 children at risk, she was rightfully applauded for taking such an action. She truly made a difference.
But her behavior shouldn’t be so far from the norm. When we have to mandate morally correct behavior, when we have to hold up for praise one person who acted to protect vulnerable children, we as a society are in serious trouble. It should be our moral imperative to intervene on behalf of those unable to protect themselves.
We often hear excuses why people don’t report:
- I’m not really sure if it is child abuse. The reporter doesn’t need to determine that. Leave that to the professionals. The reporter only needs to reasonably suspect that a child is being harmed.
- I figured other people would call. It is better that several people call rather than no one. You don’t know if other people truly did call, if they actually spoke to someone, or if they had enough information to launch an investigation. Even if you don’t realize it, you may have crucial information that others don’t have.
- What if the person sues me for reporting? State child abuse reporting laws protect individuals from liability if they make reports in good faith.
- The parent will figure out it is me and be angry. Better an angry adult than a child harmed or killed.
- I’ve called before and nothing happened. Perhaps those investigating weren’t able to substantiate the allegations for lack of information. Be persistent. If you have concerns, call again. If no one responds, ask to speak to a supervisor.
- I know someone who had a bad experience with child protective services. Don’t let frustration with the system prevent you from acting to protect a child. Systems can only improve if we all hold them accountable.
One person and one call can prevent harm or even save a life. If you see something, please say something. The safety of our nation’s children depends on all of us.