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In RI, One Law For Reporting Child Abuse, Two Different Interpretations

In the aftermath of allegations of past sexual abuse of students by employees at St. George’s School in Middletown, the school has been accused of...

In the aftermath of allegations of past sexual abuse of students by employees at St. George’s School in Middletown, the school has been accused of violating Rhode Island’s duty to report law for abused and neglected children.

But, as Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison first reported, this law is not as clear as it appears to be. 

Harrison joins host Chuck Hinman for an update on the situation, and a look at the reporting law in Massachusetts. 

CH: Good morning Elisabeth.

EH: Good morning Chuck.

CH: We have a strange situation here in Rhode Island now, with this duty to report law being interpreted in two very different ways by government agencies.

EH: That’s right. As I reported earlier, the Department of Children Youth and Families interprets the mandatory reporting statute for child abuse to apply to abuse by parents, guardians or employees of DCYF licensed facilities – generally those are daycare facilities, group homes for children in the foster care system, that sort of thing.

So basically, DCYF will investigate reports of abuse that allegedly involve a child’s parents or guardians or a facility licensed by DCYF. But other kinds of abuse, like abuse by a school teacher or another school employee, a priest, a coach, DCYF says that falls outside the definition of abuse in the statute and that would be a matter for the police.

CH: Your report was a surprise, and it contradicts what agencies including the victim’s advocacy group Day One told me about the reporting statute.

EH: Well I went back to the mandatory reporting statute in Rhode Island law, and what I found is that it refers to abuse "as defined by section 40-11-2." And if you read through that section, there’s a paragraph that defines who is a person responsible for a child’s welfare. That definition is limited to a parent, guardian, adult living in the home of a parent or guardian, or an employee of a daycare or a residential home or facility.

So this is where DCYF’s interpretation comes from, and it leaves a very big question. What about abuse by anyone else, like a teacher or school employee as in the case of St. George’s School? Do those kinds of cases have to be reported under the statute? And does DCYF investigate them.

CH: So Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has weighed in on this issue, and he says the answer to that question is yes. The abuse has to be reported no matter where it happened or who is responsible.

EH: Yes. The Attorney General’s office says the statute applies to all types of abuse of children, that it’s very clear, and that everyone is required to report abuse to DCYF. Here’s Attorney General Peter Kilmartin on Channel 10's program News Conference on Sunday, reacting to DCYF's statement that they do not have jurisdiction to investigate schools or civic organizations.

AG Kilmartin: "That goes against everything that's been in practice for years. Candidly, I'm outraged by it."

EH: Now I followed up with DCYF, and they were very clear that their interpretation of the law has remained unchanged since at least the 1980s, and possibly going back even to the 70s. I asked the Attorney General’s office how they account for this difference. Kilmartin’s spokeswoman Amy Kempe said DCYF’s view is a narrow interpretation, and their position is that the statute should be interpreted more broadly.

We (RIPR reporters) have asked twice whether anyone has ever been prosecuted for failure to report abuse by someone who falls under this apparent loophole, like a teacher or a priest. So far, they have not answered that question.

CH: Now we should say that even if DCYF determines that a call involves abuse that should be handled by law enforcement, people can still report their suspicions to DCYF.

EH: That’s true. DCYF operates a child abuse hotline, and they say everyone is welcome to call and make a report of any kind. If the report involves abuse by someone like a teacher, the agency says the caller would be told to contact law enforcement. DCYF would take the child’s name, check to see if the child is already involved in the system, and offer to steer the family to services to help the child. DCYF would also get the name of the alleged abuser and check to see if that person is involved with DCYF as a parent or caretaker, or is in any way licensed by DCYF.

But as far as the original report of abuse by the teacher, DCYF says that would be something for the police to investigate. 

CH: So DCYF would follow up on a report of abuse and work to ensure the child’s safety, but is there a legal requirement to make that report if it involves a person outside of the law’s definition of person responsible for the child’s welfare?  

EH: That’s the concern, especially when you have these two state agencies interpreting the law differently. And you have to remember that when it comes to teachers and sexual abuse, they are very often charismatic people, who are well-loved by their students and well respected by their colleagues. They target vulnerable children, and administrators may not believe the reports of abuse are credible, or they may prefer to avoid involving their institution in a criminal investigation.

I spoke with a former head of school in Massachusetts who told me that in the 1980’s Massachusetts changed the reporting law, essentially to take that decision out of the school’s hands.

CH: I looked into the way the system works in Massachusetts, compared to Rhode Island, and it's almost the opposite of our law. First of all, they define who must report, with a list of mandated reporters. But the big difference is that Massachusetts does not limit by definition who a suspected abuser can be. There is no reference to the abuse being committed by a parent or “person responsible for the child’s welfare.” Under their reporting law, known as 51A, mandated reporters must report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse by anyone, to the Department of Children and Families. And the law charges DCF with initiating the investigation of all these reports. I spoke about this with the Massachusetts Child Advocate, Maria Mossaides:

MM: “Our definition is expansive, which is why we tend to, on national comparison data, have more allegations of abuse and neglect filed. That’s not saying we have more abuse than everyone else. What we do have is more filing, because we have this expansive definition.”

CH: Mossaides also told me Massachusetts keeps these reports of abuse in a central registry, and by regulation requires any licensed facility, before they hire anyone who might be around children, to check that registry as part of the standard background check.

MM: “So if you are a person that has had an abuse or neglect complaint substantiated with you listed as the perpetrator, you cannot be hired to do that again.”

EH: It sounds like the Massachusetts law does what many think Rhode Island’s law does. Has anyone ever been prosecuted for violating the Massachusetts reporting law?

CH: In terms of schools failure to report, yes. In 1988, the headmaster at a private school -- Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge --- was fined for not reporting abuse by a teacher. And in 2005, the Groton School was fined for failure to report. Here in Rhode Island, we can find no news reports of such a prosecution ever taking place, and, as you mentioned, requests to the Attorney General’s office for any information about that have gone, so far, unanswered.     

EH: We’ll keep following up on that question and the outcome of ongoing investigations into alleged sexual abuse as St. George’s School in Middletown.

CH: Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison thanks for the update.

EH: You’re welcome Chuck.

In RI, One Law For Reporting Child Abuse, Two Different Interpretations
In RI, One Law For Reporting Child Abuse, Two Different Interpretations