By Josh Bryant
In my experience, many people in congregations across America do not understand mandated reporting. This usually is not evident until a volunteer or staff member must make a report to the child abuse hotline. If a parent or guardian finds out that someone from the church made a report to the hotline, it can really cause some hard feelings. Some of those feelings come just from the perception that making the call is immediately a personal accusation of child abuse. Other feelings come from an ignorance of the facts of the situation.
Many people in your congregation probably define mandated reporter only by that title. The think a mandated reporter is someone who must report child abuse. However, they do not usually include in that definition that a mandated reporter is someone who could be criminally charged if they fail to make a report of child abuse. It never crosses their minds that you or another from the church really does not have a choice.
Few people in the church understand that very rarely is a call to the child abuse hotline an actual allegation. You may have only seen inexplicable bruising on a child’s face. Someone may have just told you that they were being sexually abused without disclosing the offender’s identity. Sometimes your report to the hotline may be made on credible hearsay. A report is just that – a report. They do not understand that in many instances it is not an accusation that a person is abusing their child.
Very few people in the church understand the necessity to err on the side of caution. They do not stop to place themselves in the shoes of other parents. They do not consider how they would feel about sending their child to the church if another child was abused and the church did not report it. Most simply just do not understand that church leaders must weigh the evidence they have at the time and determine whether a reasonable person would suspect that child abuse could have occurred. They do not understand how low of a burden that is; most church leaders do not understand how low of a burden “reasonable suspicion” is. In close calls, church leaders must make a report.
What’s a church leader to do?
1. Educate Your Congregation.
Many churches have parent orientation meetings or something similar. If you are not already telling your church that you have a zero-tolerance policy for child abuse, you should take the opportunity to do so. Teach them about what mandated reporting really means: criminal liability for mandated reporters who do not report, reporting and not accusing, and the low burden of “reasonable suspicion.”
2. A Congregational Thought Experiment
Make your congregation think through the scenario before it happens. Ask parents what they would do if a child that was not theirs was abused and the church did not call it in. Most will tell you that they would leave or at least hesitate to put their children in care. Make sure they understand that feeling before a point comes where you may have to make a report concerning their child.
3. Weigh the Alternatives.
Most people would reach a conclusion of concern when faced with that thought experiment. As a church leader, weigh the alternatives of not reporting. On the one hand you could report and maybe lose a family or two that are upset with you. On the other hand, you could not report and lose many families concerned about your failure to report. You could also get a little jail time. When in doubt, report.
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.