I have been seeing a lot of advice like this suggesting that mandated reporters should report directly to child protection rather than going through the chain of command. I understand the impulse, as every system of reporting has its weaknesses, but on balance, I believe that involving an institution’s chain of command is the best way to protect children.
I recognize the concern that supervisors, like those in charge of Jerry Sandusky, will just sit on reports in an effort to protect the institution. There is no evidence, however, that broader mandated reporting laws have had any impact on that problem.
There are a couple of disadvantages to having individual reports directly to child protection agencies without notifying supervisors. First, most institutions 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.
Second, 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.
Finally, your organization may need to care for the child and family after the report. Child protection authorities and law enforcement may be very good at investigations, but they do not do therapy. The child in your care will spend far more time with your program than they will with any investigating officer, and you may be the best resource they have for emotional care and follow-up.
I admit to being partial to Georgia’s mandated reporting law, which says that a report to a supervisor will satisfy an individual’s reporting responsibilities. The supervisor must transmit the report verbatim, without removing anything, but he or she can add information. This provision allows supervisors to add any additional non-specific reports that they have received. Illinois law apparently has similar provisions.
The expert quoted in the Illinois story has a good point that the person with first-hand information should make the report. That consideration underlies two of my standard recommendations. First, supervisors should have staff put any concerns in writing. It may be difficult later to remember all of the important and relevant details. Second, 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.
Mandated reporting is not an either-or proposition. Best practices for youth-serving organizations will allow programs to know what is happening to the children in their care while also meeting their legal responsibilities.