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Mandatory Reporting Laws: What You Need to Know

Monday, July 23, 2012

 

One particularly tough category of jobs are those professionals considered mandatory reporters under our child abuse reporting laws. They represent, in many cases, the first line of defense against abuse of children. I doubt it's possible to capture their importance, or the weight of their burden, in this article. Mandatory reporters are those people in the community who, by virtue of their work, are in a unique position to observe and call attention to those children that need protection. The term “mandatory reporter” refers to their affirmative obligation to report cases of neglect or abuse to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.

 The Department of Children and Families, also known as “DCF,” is an administrative agency of the Commonwealth whose primary responsibility is the prevention of harm to children using particular investigatory and management authority allowed by law. Massachusetts General Laws c. 119, sec. 1 declares the purpose of this legislative structure to be the protection “against the harmful effects resulting from the absence, inability, inadequacy or destructive behavior of parents or parent substitutes, and to assure good substitute parental care in the event” of the unavailability or inability of parents to provide care and protection for children.

 One aspect of DCF affiliates discharging this responsibility is the investigation of neglect or abuse of children. After receiving such a report, DCF generates a written evaluation of the child's household that includes a determination regarding the safety of, and the risk posed to, the child in question and whether, or not, the allegation is substantiated. In the event a claim is substantiated the investigator next reports to the local District Attorney and law enforcement authorities to ensure investigation of criminal allegations.

As mentioned previously, certain members of our communities are considered to be “mandatory reporters” to DCF under Massachusetts General Laws c. 119, sec. 51A. The obligations of mandatory reporters as well as a nice summary of the process and the elements considered by reporters are found within online publications at the DCF website

The definition of mandated reporter is found within Massachusetts General Laws c. 119, sec. 21 and includes certain professionals in the medical, law enforcement, education, mental health and members of various religious denominations who are all considered responsible for alerting the authorities when they believe something is wrong. While the law creates responsibilities, it also protects reporters by explicitly stating in sec. 51A that when a person contacts DCF or law enforcement in a good faith discharge of their responsibility they cannot be liable civilly or criminally for doing so. There are also, however, real punishments for failing to make a report under sec. 51A, including criminal prosecution and notice to boards of professional licensure.

The reporting requirement is triggered when one of the professionals identified above has reasonable cause to believe, in their professional opinion, that a child is suffering physical or emotional abuse resulting from one of the five stated sources. The statute goes on to list those five mandatory reporting sources of abuse as: 1) abuse causing harm or substantial risk of harm to the child's health or welfare, including sexual abuse; 2) neglect, including malnutrition; 3) physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth; 4) being a sexually exploited child; or 5) being a victim of human trafficking.

One of the benefits of living in a country like the United States is that children have the benefit of regular doctor visits, active and positive involvement of public safety officials in their community as well as interactions with well educated and caring professionals of all types. The provisions of Massachusetts General Laws c. 119, sec. 51A helps these people in the community protect a very vulnerable segment of our society. In fact, mandatory reporters do something that, for some children, no one else can.
 

 

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