Maine has a well-intentioned law requiring people who routinely work with children to report any suspicions of abuse or neglect. But if these mandated reporters don’t know how to spot signs of or neglect or how to report it, the law is too weak to be fully effective.
LD 622 would require periodic training. This is a common-sense addition to the current law. Numerous states, including Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska, have passed laws requiring such training in recent years.
The same training requirements should extend to mandated reporters of adult abuse and neglect.
Current law lists 32 specific types of professionals required to be mandated reporters for suspected child abuse and neglect; they include doctors, dentists, teachers, bus drivers and youth camp counselors. The law also features broad language to include those affiliated with churches and religious institutions and “any person who has assumed full, intermittent or occasional responsibility for the care or custody of the child.”
Under the law, these people “shall immediately report or cause a report to be made” to the state Department of Health and Human Services “when the person knows or has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been or is likely to be abused or neglected or that a suspicious child death has occurred.” In some cases, the suspected abuse or neglect must be reported to the district attorney.
Similar language applies to those who suspect abuse of incapacitated or dependent adults.
Therese Cahill has worked with children for 20 years in schools and at the Department of Health and Human Services and has been a mandated reporter. In that time she has never received training on what to report and how, she told lawmakers last year.
“Children need the adults in their worlds to keep them safe; there is no greater responsibility than that. However, these adults deserve to be trained in what they are required by law to do,” she told the Health and Human Services Committee.
As Cahill’s experience shows, training should be backed by support from supervisors and co-workers in dealing with the potential consequences of reporting suspected abuse or neglect. After reporting suspected abuse while she worked in a school, she received death threats and was told to get an unlisted phone number, she told committee members. The perpetrator of the abuse was convicted and sentenced to prison.
“Even as my own safety was an issue, I knew that it was absolutely the right thing to do,” Cahill testified. “The abuse for that child stopped. I had done my job.”
Many mandated reporters do their job. In 2013, the Maine Office of Child and Family Services investigated 8,757 reports of suspected abuse and/or neglect. About 70 percent of these reports came from mandated reporters. Still, “due to the lack of required training under the current statute, child abuse is very likely underreported in Maine,” Jim Martin, the office’s director, said in testimony last year.
Printed materials and online training for both child and adult abuse mandated reporters is already available from the Department of Health and Human Services, so schools, medical practices and others wouldn’t have to develop or buy training materials. The online training takes about an hour, not an onerous burden on those with a responsibility to safeguard children and dependent adults.
The bill originally made training part of professional licensing and relicensing requirements. Since many mandated reporters are not licensed, lawmakers dropped this language. The amended bill simply requires training every four years. It is concerning that this leaves the legislation without an enforcement mechanism.
Even without it, however, LD 622 offers an important step forward in helping children who are in danger because they are victims of abuse and neglect.