Mandatory Abuse Reporting: An Act of Faith

by Daily Kos
May 30, 2012

Many professions require one to be a mandatory reporter of suspected child, elder or vulnerable-person abuse, with significant penalties possible if you do NOT follow through on this responsibility. In addition to obvious reporters, such as medical professionals, counselors, teachers, social workers and first responders, included on the list are some you might not think of, such as dietitians, acupuncturists, audiologists, and coroners. Basically, anyone who must be licensed or certified in some way and who may serve vulnerable populations, is a mandatory reporter. In my state, they must report when they have “reasonable cause to suspect that a child seen by the person in the course of professional duties has been abused or neglected” or “reason to believe that a child seen by the person in the course of professional duties has been threatened with abuse or neglect and that abuse or neglect of the child will occur.” [s. 48.981(2)(a), Wis. Stats.]

I didn’t forget to mention clergy. They are also on the list, but with the parenthetical caveat (with certain exceptions). Those exceptions concern “confessional confidence.” I have heard it expressed by some of my colleagues, when you can get them to even discuss the issue, that they are concerned that their role as a mandatory reporter may inhibit the confessional nature of pastoral care. In other words, people will not come and talk about being abused, or more likely, being an abuser, if they suspect that a report will be made.

In my state, Wisconsin, they are privileged to make this call. In fact, only two states, New Hampshire and West Virginia, deny privilege in cases of suspected child abuse or neglect when clergy are specified as mandatory reporters. Four others deny it when clergy are considered among "others" who are mandatory reporters. For those following the issue as it is playing out in New York concerning the rabbis, the bill being sought would clarify ambiguity that exists due to New York not being a state that specifies the role and privilege of the clergy as mandatory reporters.

And privilege is exactly what it is – the privilege of determining who or what is reported at the risk of a child or elder’s safety and spiritual well being based upon the means by which a suspicion is raised. In my capacity as a pastoral counselor, I reject that privilege and claim a different privilege – the privilege of using my position to stand first with the victims. I have made it quite clear to my congregation that disclosure of abuse or potential abuse will not be protected by me. The spiritual issues and soul work that occurs with such a disclosure will be held in confidence, but confession of an act or potential act that will harm a child or other vulnerable person will be reported. Period. I am not trying to trick anyone or trap anyone.

I am a mandatory reporter not simply because it is the law, but because I consider it to be a moral imperative. Indeed, I consider it an act of faith, bearing witness to God’s concern for the health and well being of children, the elderly, and other vulnerable persons. Am I concerned about the spiritual health of the suspected abuser? Yes I am. Am I willing to work pastorally with an abuser during and after the process of investigation? As it falls within my capabilities, I am. But I will not protect or shield an abuser at the price of safety for another.

This attitude puts me somewhat at odds with others within my denomination. As of yet, I have not had to be concerned about breaking a confessional conversation, because I have not yet had anyone come to me in confession concerning acts of abuse they have committed or might commit. I have been asked to swear secrecy by a victim out of concern for her safety. That was difficult and painful to address.

The steps for being a mandatory reporter involve filing a report if one has reasonable suspicion. At that point, the mechanisms of investigation begin with social/human services and/or law enforcement agencies. I assured the person that her safety was my primary concern and offered to take her immediately to a place of safety. She was so very frightened, and we talked for four hours before she accepted that I needed to file a report and would be present for her throughout all that followed. Would I have filed the report anyway if she had continued to ask me not to? I had to-not just because it is the law, but because it was the immediate necessity for her safety and for her spirit.

In my education concerning abuse and our responsibilities as pastors, I have been told that people who speak of it are asking for an ally to do what they cannot-help remove them from the situation by invoking a protective system. Perhaps that is indeed the case-I am hesitant to ascribe a specific motive to someone who speaks of abuse they have suffered because everyone is unique in how they address abuse and all should be met in ministry where they are. I am first, and always, called to listen, hear, believe and advocate.

It is a deeply held tenet of my faith that Christ’s first priority is for those who are powerless, and ours should be as well. I first stand with the powerless, the oppressed, and those in need of healing and wholeness. Then I am also freed to be present for the powerful and the oppressor, who also have need of healing and wholeness. This is why mandatory reporting is, for me, an act of faith in God who tented among us first as a helpless, homeless child. I am a mandatory reporter because I can do no less as a follower of Christ, because Christ calls me to engage in the work of healing, empowering, and loving. And I recognize that my motivation is not everyone’s motivation. But I do thank God with all my heart for those who hear and believe children and who do whatever they must to empower them.

In my life, my careers as teacher and pastor, over fourteen years, I have filed seven reports of suspected child abuse and one case of suspected elder abuse. One was determined not to be a case of abuse and it went no further. The rest resulted in legal steps being taken to insure the safety of the victims. I am still in contact and relationship with three of the families. I am a human who is capable of second guessing myself and entertaining doubts. But I do not regret the reports I have made. I believe it was the right thing to do for the victims, for their families, for myself, and for my God. I will continue to minister from that belief.