Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

I am sure that you have heard about all the issues with DCF reporting. With the arrest of a number of educators for failing to report suspected abuse or neglect, we are all running a little scared. My personal approach is “better safe than sorry,” and I file a report with DCF whenever something bad happens to a student. The problem, of course, is that it can take hours to get through to the Careline, and I am having trouble doing my regular job.

Recently, I heard that we can now avoid the long wait for the Careline to answer the telephone by filing our reports electronically. That sounds great, but I am not convinced. Someone told me that DCF is drawing a distinction between “emergent” and “non-emergent” situations (whatever that means) and that mandated reporters who use the online reporting system do so at our personal peril. Is this new online reporting option worthwhile? I don’t want to guess wrong and get arrested.

Thank you,
Wondering But Wary

Dear Wary:

I appreciate your concern, but it would be unfortunate if concerns such as yours prevent mandated reporters from using the online reporting option. Right now, online reporting is a pilot program for school personnel only. Legal Mailbag hopes that mandated school reporters take advantage of this new option (in appropriate circumstances, of course – more on that later) to save you all time and to help assure that DCF maintains the online reporting option.

Before reviewing the online reporting option, Legal Mailbag cannot resist questioning your approach more generally. Mandated reporters must report to DCF when they have reasonable cause to suspect or believe that a child has been abused, neglected or placed at imminent risk of serious harm, or that a student in a technical high school or public high school has been victimized by a school employee. In each case, the premise of the report is that a person entrusted with the care of the child/student has failed in his or her responsibilities, thus becoming the alleged “perpetrator.” To be sure, if a student were hurt in school, in some circumstances the alleged perpetrator could be the school employee who may have failed in his or her duty to provide appropriate supervision. But in all cases, a report should allege that someone failed in his responsibilities, and a DCF report is not required whenever something bad happens to a child (e.g., a student trips and falls down the stairs), as you describe your practice to have been.

The new pilot program offers mandated school reporters a new option to file their reports online. The link to the online reporting form is found here: DCF Online Referral Form, and further information is found here: FAQ for DCF Electronic Reporting. Legal Mailbag urges you to review the FAQ sheet and the form and consider using it in appropriate circumstances.

Legal Mailbag notes that DCF draws a distinction between “emergent” and “non-emergent” situations, and that it specifies that the online reporting system is appropriate only for “non-emergent” situations. While the nomenclature of “non-emergent” is new to Legal Mailbag as well, the concept is clear enough. The FAQ prompts the mandated reporter to ask whether the student is:

• in immediate harm
• with need for urgent or emergent medical or mental health care
• with a realistic fear of further abuse or neglect within the next 24 hours
• as at risk of being inaccessible within the next 24 hours

If these concerns are present, the situation is “emergent” and the mandated reporter must call the Careline. But online reporting will be efficient and appropriate in many circumstances.

For example, a report that the boyfriend of a student’s mother is harming a child is “emergent” because the student faces the risk of further harm when he or she goes home. By contrast, a report that a teacher used unreasonable force in pulling a student into a classroom in a particular situation is not emergent, and it would be appropriate to use the online reporting system. Legal Mailbag recognizes that we live in the “Land of Steady Habits,” but every so often something new comes along that can make your life easier. Do consider the merits of using the Online Reporting System in appropriate circumstances.