Many Georgia school systems are beginning the 2020-2021 school year in a virtual learning environment. However, the virtual learning environment does not absolve school teachers, school administrators, school counselors, visiting teachers, school social workers, or school psychologists from the mandated reporting requirements for suspected child abuse set forth in O.C.G.A. § 19-7-5. As long as one of these persons has reasonable cause to believe that suspected child abuse has occurred, they must report to the Division of Family and Children Services within 24 hours “from the time there is reasonable cause to believe that suspected abuse has occurred.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there have been less reports nationally of child abuse cases. However, the National Children’s Alliance, a professional membership organization and the accrediting body for a network of 900 Children’s Advocacy Centers, does not believe that the actual cases have gone down, only that they are not being reported. This may be largely in part because it is much more difficult to spot the signs of child abuse in a virtual environment.
Under Georgia law, child abuse is defined as physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, and endangering a child. Neglect can include abandonment and lack of supervision. Child endangerment can include depriving a child of sustenance, domestic violence, or mental/emotional abuse. In a virtual environment, teachers should be cognizant of not just a student’s appearance and demeanor, but also what is going on in the background of a student’s space. This includes taking note of any adults that can be seen in the background and any conversations that can be heard. For example, a teacher made a report after hearing noises and seeing a male individual turn off a student’s screen during a virtual class. A teacher should also be concerned if a student does not log on to the virtual learning platform for a few days, or if it appears that the student is without adult supervision and home alone.
Due to the difficulties that working parents might face with juggling their jobs and a virtual learning environment for their children, teachers should be cognizant that students may be participating in virtual learning from outside the state of Georgia (for example, Grandma in Tennessee is watching the child for a couple of weeks so that a single mother is able to go to work). If child abuse is suspected in this type of situation, the teacher may be required to report the suspected abuse in the state where the abuse occurred.
Many states, including Georgia, require reporting of “suspected” child abuse, so teachers should err on the side of caution and report any behaviors, actions or observations that give them reasonable cause to believe that child abuse may be occurring.
If you have specific questions about mandated reporting suspected child abuse, Taylor English will be happy to help.