A month ago, new rules went into effect in Georgia expanding the categories of individuals who are required to reported suspected child abuse or face criminal liability. The new law was largely a reaction to the Jerry Sandusky sex crime scandal involving Penn State University.
Although all Georgians are encouraged to contact law enforcement if they have reason to believe that a child has been abused, the new law identifies professionals and volunteer workers in a wide variety of settings and now compels them to do so. Those whose failure to report suspected child abuse who are discovered may be found guilty of a misdemeanor and face potential incarceration and other penalties.
Who are Mandatory Reporters?
Before July 1st, generally only trained professionals—primarily medical, social, and childcare workers—were “mandatory reporters” subject to criminal penalties for failure to report abuse. Under the new law, this list expands to include physicians, nurses, and other medical workers; dentists; psychologists, counselors, and therapists; teachers, guidance counselors, school administrators, and most other school workers and volunteers; members of the clergy; law enforcement personnel; and child service organization personnel.
The new mandatory reporting requirements are not limited to those who are employed in certain positions. Even those who are just volunteering in schools, hospitals, or other facilities where children are commonly found are likely covered by the new law. In effect, mandatory reporter status can be applied to anyone who ever has any significant contact with children.
The Consequences of Failing to Report Child Abuse
Mandatory reporters will be held criminally liable if they knowingly and willfully fail to report suspected child abuse. The punishment is up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
An Overly Broad Law?
The new law does not require that an individual have been told that he or she is a mandatory reporter. Ignorance of the law will be no excuse in a prosecution for failure to report. Because even volunteers, aides, interns, and other temporary workers are now mandatory reporters, it seems likely that many will not know of their status and the duties the law imposes on them.
When and How Must Mandatory Reporters Contact Authorities?
Mandatory reporters are required to alert authorities when they reasonably believe a child has been abused. Under Georgia law, abuse includes physical injury or death, neglect, and sexual abuse and exploitation. Evidence of abuse can include a wide range of signs including virtually all types of injuries as well as malnutrition and caretakers’ failure by seek medical care for a child. Other signs that mandatory reporters may be required to take note of are lack of supervision for extended periods, hunger, and various behavioral problems. While neglect is considered a type of abuse in Georgia, the law does not indicate at all what level of evidence is actually required to trigger a mandatory reporter’s responsibility to contact DFCS.
When a mandatory reporter believes the child to be in immediate danger, he or she is required to contact law enforcement immediately. Otherwise, the mandatory reporter must make an oral report to DFCS within 24 hours providing the child’s basic information, injuries, and history, as well as other relevant information. Within an facility such as a school, hospital, or other agency, a mandatory reporter who is a staff member should alert the head of the facility, and that person will then be required to make the report to DFCS. After making an oral report, an additional written report is required.
It will be interesting to see if this new law leads to more false reports of child sex abuse. It will also be interesting to see how broadly prosecutors will apply this new law, and if we will see criminal prosecutions of volunteers who work with kids when child abuse is later uncovered and the volunteer did not do enough to discover it and report it.
Page Pate is an accomplished trial lawyer with over 25 years of experience in criminal defense, civil litigation, and whistleblower representation. Page is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Top 100 Lawyers by The National Trial Lawyers, and named to the list of Super Lawyers for the past 15 consecutive years. Page is a frequent expert legal analyst for local and national media and has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia Law School. Read Page’s reviews on AVVO. Follow Page on Twitter @pagepate and on Linkedin.