There is not one school nurse about to read this short piece that has not, at least once in his or her lifetime, considered whether to report suspected child abuse. And, from close personal experience, I know that doing so is one of the most difficult yet necessary things a school nurse gets to do.
Mandatory Reporters: Unfortunately, there is little uniformity among the states as to who is required to make such a report – in other words, who is the “Mandatory Reporter?” One thing is for certain though, in a school setting, the nurse that reasonably suspects a child is a victim of abuse, is a “Mandatory Reporter.”
For example, in New Jersey, no professional groups are specified – all persons are required to report. Any person having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse, neglect, or acts of child abuse shall report. The Mandatory Reporter is not specifically required by statute to provide his or her name in the report, and the identity of the reporter shall not be made public. Any information that could endanger any person shall not be released. (See N.J.S.A.9:6-8.10 and 18 A.:36-25.) I suspect many other states have similar provisions.
Cross the bridge into Pennsylvania, and the field narrows some. Among those required to reports instances of suspected child abuse are: “(1) Persons licensed or certified to practice in any health-related field; and (2) school employees.” A school nurse clearly satisfies both prongs of that test.
One [self-serving, perhaps] misconception is that only school nurses can make a report. Wrong. Currently, in approximately 18 States and Puerto Rico any person who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report. Of those 18 States, 16 states and Puerto Rico specify certain professionals who must report, but also require all persons to report suspected above or neglect, regardless of the profession. In all other States, territories, and the District of Columbia, any person is permitted to report.
Do’s and Don’ts When Speaking with The Child:
- Remain calm.
- Keep an open mind.
- Support the child with active listening.
- Find a quiet, private place to talk to the child.
- Reassure the child that he/she has done the right thing by telling someone.
- Listen to the child without interruption; let him/her talk openly about the situation; and record concrete information.
- Tell the child that help is available.
- Reassure the child that you will do your best to protect and support him/her.
- Let the child know that you must report the abuse to someone who has helped other children and their families.
- Report the incident to the proper authorities.
- Let the child know what will happen when the report is made (if you have that information).
- Seek out your own support person(s) to help you work through your feelings about disclosure (if needed).
- Be aware of personal issues and how they affect your perception.
- Promise confidentiality.
- Express panic, shock or disgust
Legal and Criminal Liability: Aside from the legal liability that one may incur, and be facing a Nursing Board Action, in New Jersey knowingly not reporting abuse or neglect may subject a Mandatory Reporter to a fine of up to $1,000.00, or up to 6 months in prison, or both. Surely many other states carry similar penalties and repercussions.
Take Away: Familiarize yourself with your State’s laws (and/or school districts policies and procedures) on the topic of reporting suspected child abuse. Both are oftentimes confusing, so please ask questions. If you are advised that the school district does not have such a policy in place, something is not right – dig a little further, and/or let me know if I can help answer any specific question exclusive to your state. I also highly recommend www.childrenwelfarare.gov as a jumping-off point, keeping in mind that online material gets “stale” rather quickly.
If you are ever in doubt as to whether someone else in the school building (or elsewhere in the district) has made the report, make the call yourself. You may not only help save a life but also ensure that you have met your professional and legal obligations.
Disclaimer: Relentless Robin’s Husband hung his legal gloves a while back. Therefore, as well-intentioned, as this short write-up is, it is necessarily general, and should not be considered to be legal advice.
 Often referred to as “maltreatment.”
 Child Abuse And Prevention – Colorado Department of Education (October 2004)