Report Suspected Abuse, Experts Urge

By Garrett Ordower
Chicago Daily Herald [Illinois]
August 16, 2004

No one pretends reporting suspected child abuse or neglect is easy. Doing so brings worries about retaliation, loss of trust and ruined reputations over what could merely be a rumor.

But nearly 300,000 times last year, people made the decision to report suspected abuse or neglect to the state's hotline. Some made the call armed with a full accounting of abuse directly from the victim, others heard a story through the grapevine and still others had just a license plate or physical description.

About 65 percent of those calls came from mandated reporters - including clergy, teachers, police, doctors and firefighters - who are required by state law to report suspected child abuse or neglect to authorities.

Much has been said and many questions have been asked about the actions of those who knew, or might have known, about the sexual abuse of two teenage girls by former Geneva priest Mark Campobello, who is serving eight years in prison after pleading guilty. Most of those involved in the case fall under the scope of the mandated reporting law, and one teacher recently lost her job because the Rockford Diocese said she didn't follow it.

Though those who don't report face the possibility of criminal prosecution, it happens rarely. Law enforcement officials have suggested they won't in the Campobello case.

More often, people are left to toil in the moral straits of their situation, wondering if they should have reported even if it risked negative consequences.

The message from experts is that they should have.

"Once you know of a situation, even if you have the information third- or fourth-hand, you have an obligation to report, legally and morally," said Sharon Doty, a legal expert and consultant with Virtus, which created the Protecting God's Children program in use by more than 80 Catholic dioceses across the country.

Certain professions like teaching are included in the mandated reporting act because those who work in them often come in close contact with children, and children turn to them in times of need. But that same closeness can cause hesitation when it comes to reporting child abuse, for fear of hurting the child even more. Those fears, Doty said, are unwarranted.

"Young people will say, 'I need to talk to you, and you can't say anything,'?" Doty said. "I know to say to them, 'I can't promise that.' Young people will tell anyway because they want to tell, and they want to be supported."

The publicity that comes with cases of child abuse or neglect also can cause people to pause before carrying out their mandate.

"We think that making a report causes irreparable harm to someone's reputation," Doty said. "We think that if we report what we saw, it's going to end up on the front page of the paper."

But in reality, reports to the state Department of Children and Family Services remain largely confidential, especially before investigators deem there to be credible evidence of abuse, according to Linda Everette-Williams, administrator of the state hotline.

"Our investigations are strictly confidential," Everette-Williams said.

Investigators also make every effort to be discreet as they conduct their investigations, she said.

Many people also fear the retaliation that could come from an "angry pastor or angry uncle," Doty said. While many people can use common sense to identify who reported them, Everette-Williams said, DCFS doesn't disclose that information.

Those fears are fueled by the false belief that their call will be the final step in the process. However, most reports never make it to the investigation stage. In fiscal 2004, 277,295 calls came in to the hotline, but only 62,749 reports were taken. Of those, credible evidence existed in about 25 percent of the cases.

Despite the large numbers of reports, Doty said skittishness about reporting rumors still exists, but it shouldn't since the state, not the reporter, sorts out whether there is truth to an allegation.

"The law says you should make a report," Everette-Williams said. "You shouldn't try to assess it or conduct your own investigation. It's not the role of the mandated reporter to conduct the investigation."

Though the mechanism to bring criminal charges against someone for failing to report does exist, it's rarely used. The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor crime is up to a year in jail and a fine. Everette-Williams said she only refers about 10 people a year to law enforcement or state licensing boards for breaking the reporting law.

The DuPage County state's attorney's office launched one of the few prosecutions for failing to report after a mentally disabled 15-year-old boy told a 21-year-old child-care worker he had been beaten by his foster parents, as evidenced by a black eye.

"The reason it was charged is because she had knowledge the child had been abused and returned the child back into the home," said Laura Pollastrini, a DuPage County state's attorney spokeswoman. "It was blatant. It wasn't like she had questions."

The woman recently pleaded guilty in exchange for a year of court supervision, and agreed to testify against the foster parents.

The threat of legal action may carry more weight than the rare prosecutions themselves. People in all of the professions covered by the reporting act must sign a statement acknowledging they understand what the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act means and what the penalties are.

In one form or another, reporting laws have been in place since 1966, with the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act enacted in 1974.

Over time the category of those included as mandated reporters has grown, most notably adding clergy within the past few years. At least 18 states do away with professional categories and simply require anyone over the age of 18 to report, which Doty thinks is a good idea.

Child-abuse reports shot up 6,000 percent in the decade after mandated reporting laws were enacted in the mid-'60s, according to one published report, and have continued to climb ever since.

"(Mandated reporters are) the first persons to normally see the abuse and neglect," Everette-Williams said. "They're out there working with families and children every day; children feel comfortable sharing information with them, so they are very important to child protection."

With the law firmly in place, the emphasis from many of those involved is now on educating those affected by it.

The law itself requires only that reporters sign a statement acknowledging they know their responsibilities, but it doesn't outline the training they should receive. That training has changed with the recent church sex abuse scandal. Virtus' Protecting God's Children program, started in 2001, is now used at the Rockford and Joliet dioceses, as well as the Chicago Archdiocese.

"For the past 15 or 20 years we as a society have dealt with child sexual abuse by saying, 'Say no, run away and tell somebody,'?" Doty said. "The piece that was missing was that we now identify steps to take to prevent abuse."

But those steps don't always work, Doty said, and when a reporter gets an inkling abuse has taken place, they must act.

"When in doubt, report," Doty said.