I have received several questions lately from youth organization about what sort of procedure they should have in place for mandated reporting. Each situation is unique, but there are several principles that you can follow.
As a starting point, I like Georgia’s mandated reporting law, which says that a report to a supervisor will satisfy an individual’s reporting responsibilities. Where state laws allow that process, I recommend that every organization require employees to come to a supervisor with concerns before, or at least at the same time as, a report to child protection. This procedure prevents a frequent fact pattern I hear, in which the first notice that organizations get involving a child in their care is a visit from law enforcement or protective services. Youth organizations rightly want to know what is going on before they get a visit from child protection authorities, and supervisors tend to take offense when they learn about an employee’s official report from someone other than the employee. Few states provide any protection to employees who make a report that angers their supervisors.
At this point, the staff member should put his or her concerns in writing. It may be difficult later to remember all of the important and relevant details.
I also like Georgia’s law for the next steps. The supervisor must transmit the employee’s report verbatim, without removing anything, but he or she can add information. This provision allows supervisors to add any additional information that they have received that, at the time, did not raise suspicions of abuse. It also allows supervisors to include information indicating that the employee is overreacting to a situation. It is never a good idea for an organization to ignore a staff member’s concerns about possible abuse. A supervisor, however, can include additional information, such as the fact that the family is seeking help for particular problems, that the staff member might not know.
Having a staff member report to a supervisor rather than directly to child protection authorities also helps protect children. Disconnected individual reports may miss a pattern of repeated behavior that signals abuse. A supervisor is more likely than an individual caregiver to have the institutional knowledge about repeated incidents and concerns. If child protection authorities, for example, only hear about one ambiguous statement from a child, they may not recognize its significance. A supervisor who could add a report of a previous ambiguous statement might be able to add important context.
For these reasons, supervisors and employees should call child protection authorities together. That practice will meet all the concerns of ensuring that authorities get first-hand information while keeping supervisors in the loop on what is happening in their program. It also will ensure that the staff member has an opportunity to know what the supervisor reports and to add any information he or she thinks is important. Complete transparency on all sides is the best way to protect the child, encourage the employees, and fulfill the organization’s mission.