In the wake of child abuse tragedies like the Jerry Sandusky case or, closer to home the allegations against a teacher in La Crescent, people are often left wondering, "How could this have happened?" One of the most important safeguards against child abuse is having mandatory reporters—workers and volunteers who are required by law to report suspicions of abuse.
Often, mandatory reporters are the first to spot the signs of child abuse. Whether or not they notify authorities and provide the right information can make all the difference in protecting children. Yet, many businesses and organizations offer meager training on reporting to their employees, and volunteers may not receive any training.
"What they told staff about reporting responsibilities varied from being given the phone number to call, or being given a pamphlet, watching a video, or looking online for information," Laurie Watson, a member of the Winona County Human Services Citizen Review Panel, said of some local businesses' and organizations' training for mandatory reporters. "And for volunteers, the training was very limited or did not exist at all."
Last April, the Citizen Review Panel hosted an informational session for the managers and leaders of local businesses and organizations on mandatory reporter training. In particular, attendees were encouraged make use of the training offered by the county's human services department. One hundred and six people from 26 agencies took part in the session. In the months following the session, 17 agencies took part in training sessions with the county, many of them new. Winona County Human Services Children and Family Unit Supervisor Sharon Summers estimated the number of agencies who made use of county training sessions has nearly doubled after the Citizen Review Panel informational session.
Summers also said that while companies are required by law to conduct training, it is often "very generic," and "a small little snippet of mandated reporter training" is squeezed into a day full of training on other subjects.
At the county's mandatory reporter training, trainees learn about different forms of child abuse from neglect to emotional abuse, the signs that should trigger a report, how to make a report, whom to provide it to, and what kind of information they should try to include. Trainees learn about what happens once a report is made and are reminded that reporters' identities are strictly confidential.
Having time specifically devoted to mandatory reporter training makes a big difference in and of itself, Summers said. Additionally, training with human services personnel allows trainees to ask "what-if" questions and hear from the social workers who would follow up on their reports. "They can have some discussion, they can have some dialogue. You're not going to get that with a video," said Summers.
Training sessions with the county are valuable because "there is a live person there who can answer your questions," said Watson. Social workers can share anecdotes and give trainees "some real information about what happens if you report or if you don't report."
"The more informed people are, hopefully, there will be an increase in reporting so that children who are in bad situations can get the services that they need," said Watson. "Our goal is to help prevent abuse and neglect from continuing either with that specific child or with other victims as the years go on."
A hard phone call
As simple as it sounds, in real-world situations, knowing when to report suspected child abuse is not always a straightforward or easy decision. "People are cautious to report because they think, 'What if I'm wrong?'" Watson said. It is easy to dismiss "small" concerns, and hard to make the phone call to authorities, she said.
A janitor in the Jerry Sandusky case walked in on Sandusky showering with a boy, did not like what he saw, and walked out," Watson said. "And that's everybody's normal reaction, 'I do not want to go there, I do not want to think it was what I saw; there must be some other explanation.'
"He should have stopped it right then and there. He should have said, 'Hey, this isn't appropriate. Get out of the shower.' But we need to hear that before we get ourselves in a situation where that happens because hindsight is 20-20," she said.
Watson also mentioned that in the Sandusky case, a number of witnesses reported the incidents they saw, but they reported the incidents to their superiors at Penn State, not to law enforcement or human services personnel, and the reports were covered up. "Because of that, look at all of the victims…in the meantime," Watson said. "If those folks there had gone to a mandated reporter training, and had been told all these things, and had their fears allayed, wouldn't there have been a great chance that one of those people would have called the authorities instead of reporting to their superiors and this could have been stopped long before?"
"If your policy is to notify your supervisor, then you do that," Watson said. "But the person who sees this is responsible for calling it in. You cannot just tell your supervisor and then just dust your hands of the whole thing."
Another point of hesitation for would-be reporters is the fear that human services personnel are going to take kids away from their families, Summers said. "Our most important thing is to keep families intact. We know that family is very important." She added there are very strict regulations on when social workers can take a child away from a family.
Conversely, others are deterred from calling in reports because they think nothing will come of their reports. People think, "'Why would I bother to go through all that trouble if social services isn't going to do anything,'" said Watson, who has worked in child protection. She said that while social workers may not be able to act on a report for one reason or another, those reports still matter because a series of reports may well lead to an investigation even if individual reports do not.
Who is a reporter?
People who work or volunteer in the fields of education, child care, health care, law enforcement, corrections, social services, and ministry are all mandatory reporters under Minnesota law. The failure to report signs of child abuse by a mandatory reporter is punishable by up to a $3,000 fine and 90 days in jail. But the real punishment is living with the knowledge that your inaction led to the continued abuse of a child or to the abuse of new victims, Watson pointed out.
How to report
Anyone who witnesses or has suspicions of child abuse should notify Winona County Human Services (507-457-6500) or local law enforcement. If a child is in immediate danger, call 911 immediately. Summers said it is important not ask children who may be victims leading questions, such as, "Did someone hurt you?" Instead ask children, "What happened?"
Authorities often are not able to follow up on reports without information on the address or whereabouts of potential victims and their parents or guardians, so providing that information with a report is crucial, Summers said.
The Citizen Review Panel
The Winona County Citizens Review Panel is a group of volunteers who work with and review the Human Services' Children and Family Unit. In addition to providing input and oversight, each year the panel works on a project to make local children safer. Last year, the panel created a written report template for organizations and companies to use, which lays out the information social workers will need to respond to the report appropriately.