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Child abuse: who should have to report it?

Let’s say your child’s friend repeatedly shows up at your door with bruises on his back and face. One day, you see his mother grab him hard and slap his face.

In about 18 states, the law would require you report your suspicion that the child was being abused. Georgia is not among them, but the idea surfaces periodically — especially after a child dies at the hands of an adult.

Time and again, a neighbor or relative acknowledges they saw danger signs but didn’t make the call. Take the case of 5-year-old Heaven Woods, who died last month of blunt force trauma to the abdomen: Family members recounted a string of mysterious injuries that the mother — now charged with murder — tried to explain away. A knot on the girl’s head, supposedly the result of a clumsy fall. Marks around her throat, supposedly self-inflicted.

Would Heaven and children like her be safer if every adult had a legal duty to report suspected neglect and abuse?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution probed the issue with lawmakers and child protection advocates and by reaching out to states that have adopted such laws. Overall, there was great enthusiasm for the concept but serious doubt that it works in practice.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur isn’t afflicted with those doubts.“I believe children would be safer if everyone had the legal obligation to report child abuse,” she said.

But even Oliver, among the state’s leading child advocates, hesitated when asked if she planned to submit a bill. She still remembers the defeat she faced years ago when she pressed for such a law. It’s government going too far, opponents said. Parents have the right to discipline their kids, said others. The punishment my father doled out made me a better men, still others argued.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, another child advocate, said that while she is sympathetic to universal mandated reporting, she sees difficulties in crafting a law that would hold up in court. How would you prove a person’s negligence? Who would be witness to it? What would be the evidence?

“It sounds good, it’s just not practical,” Unterman said. In addition, she said, any measure of the sort would strike some lawmakers as government overstepping its role in people’s lives. “I don’t see it being passed in Georgia.”

Certain cases of child abuse and neglect are clear to see: the father who repeatedly hauls off and beats his child in public. But some instances can be subtle, with the damage inflicted out of public view. When you see a child with injuries, how do you know the cause? And if you err on the wrong side and don’t report it, should you end up in handcuffs?

Georgia’s existing mandated reporter law goes back decades. It has long covered doctors, teachers and many other professionals who work with children. In 2012, after the Penn State scandal focused attention on adults who fail to report, lawmakers expanded the law to include sports coaches, clergy and volunteers for groups that work with children. Mandated reporters who fail to report suspected abuse within 24 hours face a misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Advocates point to the 14,000-plus reports filed in each recent year by school employees, guidance counselors and daycare workers as evidence that a legal mandate works. But there have been few prosecutions of mandated reporters who failed in their legal duty — evidence, in the eyes of one Georgia child protection expert, that expanding the mandate to all adults would have scant impact.

“Educating and training the entire adult population about how to detect and report child abuse may not be feasible,” said Melissa Carter, executive director of Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Poverty Center.

A 2012 analysis by the State Policy Advocacy & Reform Center found that states with universal mandated reporting had no higher rates of abuse reports than those without the mandate. In addition, administrators from several states with universal reporting acknowledged that many people simply don’t know the law exists.

States that require all adults to report include Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, New Jersey and Wyoming.

Nationally, a federal universal mandated reporting law was proposed in 2011, but was put on hold while lawmakers reviewed the impact of such laws in states that had them. When the proposal resurfaced this May, the Speak Up for Every Abused Kid Act limited mandated reporters to medical professionals, school employees, law enforcement and social service workers.

Proponents of broader reporting laws said they generate useful information for child protection workers and make family members more comfortable speaking up because they know it is the law.

“It puts a priority on the safety of children,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant of Rhode Island Kids Count. “It helps to create an atmosphere where people feel we are responsible for the safety of children.”

In 2012, Florida went so far as to upgrade failure to report from a misdemeanor to a felony.

But Andrea Moore, a longtime child advocate in Florida, said a universal reporting law matters little compared to having a well-resourced child welfare system that diligently investigates child abuse reports. Despite the law, Florida’s system continues to struggle to adequately protect children, she said.

Georgia, too is struggling to improve a system with many documented gaps and weaknesses. The AJC has repeatedly exposed systemic failures that leave children vulnerable and shield agency errors from public view.

In April, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed a Child Welfare Reform Council, which is headed by longtime advocate Stephanie Blank. Among the issues the panel will explore is overcoming people’s reluctance to report their suspicions of abuse or neglect, Blank said.

Some people are concerned their own safety if the person they report learns of it. (There is no need to fear: People can make reports anonymously in Georgia.) Some hesitate to intrude on the private goings-on inside another household. And some people just have trouble believing that a parent they know would actually go so far as to hurt their child.

“Sometimes the people most likely to know are the least likely to report,” Blank said.

The council, she added, could also discuss a universal mandated reporting law.

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