Stop Child Abuse
Stop Child Abuse
By: Kathryn S. Krase, Ph.D., J.D., MSW
Part II: Whose Responsibility Is It? Reporting in the Workplace
In some states, all adults are required by law to report suspicions of child maltreatment (they are mandated reporters), but in most cases, the legal obligation to report suspicions of child maltreatment is related to the professional role of the reporter. This article will discuss how the social worker should navigate his/her responsibility as a mandated reporter in the workplace.
Many social workers work in private practice, or aspire to. In private practice, the social worker is the ultimate authority on decisions related to his/her work, including the decision to report suspected child maltreatment. However, most social workers, especially those early in their professional careers, work in an agency setting. In the agency setting, social workers’ responsibilities are further prescribed by agency policy and supervisors. In agency settings, the decision to report suspected child abuse and neglect can be a point of stress or contention.
The agency is responsible for actions taken by employees through the expected course of practice. This responsibility is defined in legal doctrine by the Latin phrase Respondeat Superior. Under Respondeat Superior, if social workers fail to make a report of suspected child maltreatment related to a case that they were assigned by the agency, the agency AND the social worker can be sued for failing to protect the child from future harm. As a result of this extension of liability to agencies for the actions of their employees, agencies usually have written policies that prescribe responsibilities of employees related to various obligations, including mandated reporting. It is your responsibility to identify, read, and study these agency policies.
Although your agency employer is ultimately responsible for what you do on the job, merely informing a supervisor or colleague about your suspicions of child maltreatment DOES NOT discharge your legal duty as a mandated reporter to make a report to child protective services (CPS). You must make the report yourself, or insure that the report is made on your behalf (depending on the state in which you work).
In some states, agencies are allowed to designate a particular staff member who makes the actual calls to CPS, even if he/she does not have firsthand knowledge about the suspicions. These individuals are usually called the “designated reporter” or “agency reporter.” Some states have recently changed their laws away from this model.
In states that allow the “designated reporter” to make the report, it is important for the social worker to know that his/her responsibility to report is not satisfied merely by informing the designated reporter of his/her concerns. The social worker does not discharge his/her legal obligation to report until the actual report is made to CPS.
However, no matter what setting you work in, the ultimate responsibility to report lies with you as the individual mandated reporter, not with the agency. Whereas the agency can be held legally liable for an employee’s failure to report suspected child maltreatment under Respondeat Superior, the employee is also liable for the failure, even if his/her supervisor said not to make the report.
Conferring with Colleagues
As social workers, we appreciate the benefits of processing our thoughts and feelings about our practice with supervisors and colleagues. Our professional practice related to mandated reporting should be no different. Social workers should confer with supervisors and colleagues about treatment options for clients, as well as about our concerns related to the decision to report suspected child maltreatment.
Especially early in professional practice, a social worker may have suspicions of child maltreatment related to a client, but not be sure if the suspicions are warranted, or whether a report to child protective services (CPS) is necessary. This is why the social worker should always talk to a supervisor prior to making a decision about reporting to CPS.
When a social worker talks to a colleague or supervisor, the social worker may receive feedback that reinforces his/her concerns. This process may help the social worker realize that his/her concerns are actually suspicions of child maltreatment that he/she is legally required to report to CPS.
The opposite is also possible. When a social worker talks to a colleague or supervisor about his/her concerns, the social worker may receive feedback that helps the social worker determine that he/she does not have actual suspicions about child maltreatment. It may happen that instead, the social worker determines that his/her concerns were related to differences in experiences and expectations related to his/her own upbringing or parenting. In this case, conferring with a colleague or supervisor can help the social worker acknowledge his/her own personal biases and make him/her aware of the impact that one’s own experiences can have on judgments about clients.
In some cases, the social worker might confer with a colleague or supervisor and end up with a more troubling outcome. The colleague or supervisor, after hearing the social worker’s concerns, might say that the social worker should not make a report to CPS, even if the social worker believes he/she should. In some of these cases, the social worker and the colleague/supervisor might disagree about whether or not the concerns warrant a report. In those cases, it is best to leave the determination up to CPS. The social worker should make the call, and can even express reservation to CPS.
In more troubling circumstances, the social worker and the colleague/supervisor might agree about the concerns, but the colleague/supervisor still tells the social worker not to make the report. In some cases, the social worker might feel that making a report in opposition to the colleague/supervisor’s instructions would put him/her at risk of retaliation in the workplace, or even at risk of losing his/her job.
Laws exist in at least 18 states that provide employees specific protection from retaliation from employers that is due to lawful reporting of suspected child maltreatment. In all other states, there are general provisions of employment law that protect your right to make a report to CPS (Lau, Krase, & Morse, 2009).
To be clear, if you are threatened, harassed, demoted, or fired and you think it is due to the fact that you made a lawful report to CPS, the law protects you. Your employer can be held liable for such conduct. You should seek legal counsel in your state.
If you had a great practice professor like I did, you learned all about the importance of documentation in client records. Well, documentation related to mandated reporting is just as important. Whether you make a report or not, you need to document your concerns and conversations related to those concerns.
When a social worker first develops concerns that a child may be maltreated, the client’s records may already include related information. You might have been documenting throughout the professional relationship things the client told you or observations you made of behavior, not even thinking that down the line you might make a report to CPS. The client record becomes an invaluable resource. When you make the report to CPS, have the client’s case file in front of you to help you remember dates and context for information you believe is relevant to your report.
Once you start considering making a report to CPS, you must inform your supervisor. You need to document this discussion, but where and how you record the information depends on the outcome of the meeting. If you and your supervisor agree as to the decision to report, or not to report, document this in the client’s case file. If you and your supervisor DO NOT agree about the decision to report, or not to report, you should make such a note in the client’s case file, but you should also document this disagreement in your own personal records. You can e-mail yourself notes about the meeting. The electronic record provides evidence about the date and time of the discussion, in case there is future legal action related to this disagreement.
The ultimate responsibility to make a report of suspected child maltreatment lies with the mandated reporter. When a social worker is employed in an agency setting, there is a lot of pressure to conform to agency practices, but the obligation to report suspected child maltreatment is not trumped by anything, even your supervisor’s direction. Many social workers avoid discussing their mandated reporting role in the agency because of concerns for disagreement. Instead, social workers should insist on training and discussion of these issues before any potential conflicts arise in the workplace. The lives of millions of children depend on us.
Lau, K., Krase, K., & Morse, R. H. (2009). Mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect: A practical guide for social workers. New York: Springer.
Kathryn S. Krase, Ph.D., J.D., MSW, is an assistant professor of social work at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her Ph.D. in social work, her Juris Doctor, and her Master of Social Work from Fordham University. She has written and presented extensively on mandated reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect. She previously served as Associate Director of Fordham University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Family and Child, as well as Clinical Social Work Supervisor for the Family Defense Clinic at New York University Law School.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Summer 2013, Vol. 20, No. 3. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 White Hat Communications.