Nurses Are on the Front Lines of Combatting Child Abuse

June 27th, 2012

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By , BSN, RN

child abuseLast Friday night, June 22, 2012, the story of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky went into its final chapters. Sandusky will likely spend the rest of his life in prison after being convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse.

As a country we have lived with this story since last year. It is a horrifying tale of child sexual abuse, cover-ups, almighty football, and a great coach living out his final days in the shadow of his employee’s unjustifiable misdeeds.

This story had it all. We are filled with hope that it will now be laid to rest. We hope the victims will go on with their lives, getting the help, counseling, and closure they deserve. We expect the perpetrator will never again be a free man after he is sentenced.

However, this is a story that is far from over. Child abuse in many forms happens every day. As nurses we play a pivotal role in getting the innocent out of abusers’ hands and getting those abusers off the streets. In fact, our role is government mandated.

Every state, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories have designated individuals who are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Who is included in this group of mandated reporters varies from state-to-state, but nurses and physicians are always in the designated groups.

Anyone may report incidents of maltreatment, and approximately 18 States and Puerto Rico require all citizens to report suspected abuse or neglect regardless of their professional background. It is important for all mandatory reporters to be familiar with the statutes and the reporting laws in their home state.

As mandated reporters, all nurses not only have the responsibility to report suspected abuse, but also to know how to make a report, to be familiar with their program and state's policies and reporting procedures, and to communicate with Child Protective Services (CPS).

In addition to the mandated reporting of suspected abuse or neglect, all states provide immunity from civil liability and criminal penalty for mandated reporters who report in good faith. This means that if you suspect that a child is being maltreated and make a report to CPS, that you will not experience negative legal consequences as a result of making a report.

In some states, New York for instance, you cannot get a nursing license until you have taken and passed an “identifying and reporting child abuse” continuing education requirement.

When to Report

Although all states require the reporting of suspected abuse and neglect, there is no requirement that the reporter have proof that the abuse or neglect has occurred. Typically, a report must be made when the reporter suspects or has reasons to suspect that a child has been harmed in some way.

Waiting for absolute proof may result in significant risk to the child. It is not the reporter’s job to validate the abuse; this is the job of CPS caseworkers or law enforcement officers who have been trained to undertake this type of investigation.

How and Where to Report

The majority of states require that reports of child abuse or neglect be made orally, either by person or by telephone, to the specified authorities. Some states require that a written report follow the oral report, but, in some jurisdictions, this is only required of mandated reporters. In other states, written reports are required only upon request. Some states allow professionals to report via the Internet.

Depending on the state, reports of allegations of abuse or neglect perpetrated by nonrelated caregivers, such as childcare providers, foster parents, or teachers, may need to be filed with both CPS and a law enforcement office. In most states, there are statutes that require cross-system sharing and reporting procedures between social service agencies, law enforcement departments, and prosecutors' offices. In addition to assessing and investigating the case, CPS caseworkers may be involved in the intervention with the affected families.

Failure to Report

Nurses and other mandated reporters may fail to report cases of suspected child maltreatment. As a result, almost every state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories have enacted statutes specifying the penalties for failing to report child abuse or neglect.

There are NO excuses for failing to report

You may believe that filing a report will not lead to any benefit to the child involved. You may believe that filing a report may actually place the child at an increased risk of abuse or neglect. You may feel uncertain that abuse or neglect has actually occurred. Such concerns of any nature DO NOT discharge your legal obligation to file a report. Such concerns WILL NOT protect you from liability for failing to report.

Failure to report is classified as a misdemeanor in approximately 35 states, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; in Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota, misdemeanors are upgraded to felonies for failure to report more serious situations; and in Illinois and Guam, second or subsequent violations are classified as felonies. Some states also have fines for failing to report suspected maltreatment.

Nurses play an important role in the lives of children. You are in a unique position to observe and interact with children. You see changes in children that may indicate abuse or neglect. Because of this special relationship, you may learn information that suggests a child is being abused or neglected.

Once you file a report, the child, and family may become eligible to receive a wide variety of services that will improve the family’s ability to care ‚Ä®for the child. The family may be provided parenting classes, counseling, treatment for substance abuse, medical services, anger management education, and other services designed to meet the family’s specific needs.

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