Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.
Dear Legal Mailbag:
I am confused. As a principal, I am a mandated reporter, and I understand that I must file a report with the Department of Children and Families whenever I have “reasonable cause to suspect or believe” that abuse has occurred. But that is easier said than done. For example, just last week, a student accused a teacher in my school of grabbing him by the arm in the hall and hurting him. But I have my doubts. First, this particular student is prone to exaggeration, and I take almost everything he says with a grain of salt. Second, in talking with students and even some teachers who were in the area at the time of the alleged “grab,” no one was able to verify his story. Now I am waiting for my technical people to provide me with the video evidence from the hallway security tapes. Let’s say that I come up empty with the security tapes as well. Do I still have to file a report with DCF?
Better Safe than Sorry
Did you say you are a principal? I must say that Legal Mailbag is surprised and disappointed by your confusion on fundamental principles of child abuse reporting. To be sure, you correctly stated the standard, but your efforts to investigate the student’s claims are wrongheaded for two reasons.
First, you have misapplied the standard in the statute. “Reasonable cause to suspect or believe” is the standard in Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 17a-101a, not guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or even by a preponderance of the evidence. In 2015, the General Assembly clarified the standard by adding Section 17a-101a(d), which provides “a mandated reporter’s suspicion or belief may be based on factors including but not limited to, observations, allegations, factors or statements by a child, victim . . . or third party. Such suspicion or belief does not require certainty or probable cause.” (Emphasis added). This clarification reflects the premise of child abuse reporting obligation: mandated reporters report any suspicions to DCF so that DCF (and not the mandated reporter) can determine whether child abuse or neglect has occurred. The hope and expectation are that many or even most child abuse reports will be unsubstantiated. But the statutory standard for reporting, which mandates reports whenever there is any suspicion, helps assure that investigations will be undertaken and action will be taken to protect children when necessary.
Second, your investigation of the student’s complaint is inconsistent with your statutory responsibility as a mandated reporter. Once a mandated reporter is aware of information that forms the basis for suspicion of abuse or neglect, as described above, Section 17a-101b requires that “An oral report shall be made by a mandated reporter as soon as practicable but not later than twelve hours after the mandated reporter has reasonable cause to suspect or believe that a child has been abused or neglected or placed in imminent risk of serious harm, by telephone or in person to the Commissioner of Children and Families or a law enforcement agency.” Sitting around waiting to look at security tapes is certainly not “as soon as practicable.”
I do not mean to suggest that you are thereby absolved of the duty to investigate. Conn. Gen. Stat. Section10-221s contemplates that school officials will investigate allegations that a school employee is guilty of child abuse or neglect. Specifically, it provides:
A local or regional board of education shall permit and give priority to any investigation conducted by the Commissioner of Children and Families or the appropriate local law enforcement agency that a child has been abused or neglected . . . . Such board of education shall conduct its own investigation and take any disciplinary action, in accordance with the provisions of section 17a-101i, upon notice from the commissioner or the appropriate local law enforcement agency that such board’s investigation will not interfere with the investigation of the commissioner or such local law enforcement agency. (Emphasis added).
See also Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 17a-101h (“Coordination of investigatory activities”). Thus, it is clear that school officials must (1) report suspicions immediately; (2) defer to DCF to investigate any such suspicion; and (3) investigate the suspicion themselves only after checking with DCF (or law enforcement as the case may be) that investigation by school officials will not interfere with the DCF (or law enforcement) investigation.
I don’t doubt that you have a good heart and that you want to do the right thing. Study these requirements carefully, and do the right thing.
Please submit your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.