Schools in Georgia are now informing parents of a law passed this year that broadens the list of people mandated to report child abuse. The list now includes volunteers at churches, colleges, clubs, summer camps or soccer fields or parents who chaperone a field trip. They could go to jail if they fail to report suspected abuse.
A Fulton parent sent me a copy of a letter she wrote to her legislator expressing concerns about the law. She writes: “… there are hundreds of volunteers in the FCS system and I believe this law leaves the door open for the possibility of a volunteer thinking they see a case and reporting it ‘just in case.’ After all, if they don’t, they might be charged with a misdemeanor, right? This leaves a terrible scenario where an innocent child/family may be traumatized by the removal of a child and lengthy “investigations.” I personally would call this child abuse.”
A short excerpt of the letter is below. I asked the Fulton school system to explain this new policy, and that response is also below.
Like other systems, Fulton is following a state directive to notify all school volunteers that they must report any suspected child abuse to the Department of Family and Children Services or face legal charges. Fulton is holding a meeting Monday evening to explain the law to parents.
Cherokee included this mention of the law in its guidelines for volunteers: Understand that under current GA Law (O.C.G.A § 19-7-5), school-affiliated volunteers are considered as “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse. Should you gain information as it relates to a suspected case of child abuse through a verbal/written communication, direct observation, or some other manner, you must report this information to your school’s administration immediately. It will become that administrator’s (or designee’s) responsibility to then report the suspected abuse to the appropriate state or local investigative agency.
The AJC reported on this law in the spring when it passed the General Assembly. Here is an excerpt of the story:
The change, when it becomes law, will mandate reporting by any employee or volunteer at any kind of agency, business, nonprofit or other group that works with children. Violators of the reporting mandate can be charged with a misdemeanor and face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The amendment was added to House Bill 1176, which shortens sentences for lesser crimes to reduce the load on prisons. It was approved unanimously by both houses and awaits the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal, who promoted the initiative as one of his top priorities.
Spokesman Brian Robinson said Deal “definitely will sign” the bill. It becomes law July 1. “You’re going to see an exponential increase in reports of potential child abuse, ” predicted John Adams, a former human resources official for the Cobb County School District.
Adams, who now runs a teachers advocacy group called Educators First, said the new provisions would conceivably apply to every PTA member and even parents who volunteer in a classroom. Institutions will probably have to train, or at least educate, everyone who could fall under the law’s provisions, Adams said.
Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, authored the current mandatory reporting law that is limited to a handful of professions. This year, she proposed expanding it to all Georgians, but lawmakers thought that went too far. She said her goal was education and deterrence rather than prosecution for failure to report. She noted that three professionals have been convicted since the statute took effect in 2009.
The amendment was a bipartisan effort. It was written by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, with help from Carter at Emory, and folded into the governor’s sentencing bill by Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, co-chair of the House Special Joint Committee on Georgia Criminal Justice Reform.
Oliver said lawmakers concerned about child abuse seized on public support for action in the wake of the scandal at Penn State University, where assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of child sexual abuse. Oliver wanted to ensure that coaches were required to report suspicions of abuse.
Perhaps the biggest change: Previously only employees were clearly mandated as required to report suspected abuse, but now volunteers will fall under the provision.
“It’s obviously going to be a big thing, ” said Mike Bryant, executive director of the Bogart-based Georgia Association of Christian Schools. The group represents 55 mostly Baptist schools, a half-dozen of them in metro Atlanta. The schools require background checks and fingerprinting of teachers, Bryant said, but churches and schools are probably “all over the map” on checks for volunteers at Sunday school and church nurseries or for chaperoning field trips.
From a Fulton parent:
It has recently come to my attention that parents who volunteer in the Fulton County School system will now be required to to become “mandatory reporters” for any suspected child abuse. As a parent and volunteer myself, I am very disturbed at the amount of responsibility this gives us. We read to kids, provide teachers lunches, assist in the library, we are not accredited counselors or social workers.
I am concerned for a number of reasons…there are hundreds of volunteers in the FCS system, and I believe this law leaves the door open for the possibility of a volunteer “thinking” they see a case and reporting it “just in case.” After all, if they don’t, they might be charged with a misdemeanor, right? This leaves a terrible scenario, where an innocent child/family may be traumatized by the removal of a child and lengthy “investigations.”
Should this scenario play out — even once- — is not only too much, but can you imagine the family suing the volunteer? There will be no union or financial aid for them. This is just too much of a heavy burden to take I believe, and, in the best interest of all children, I do believe this is not a wise law. Just at the point when FCS need all the volunteer assistance they can get, I think they will lose many. I, for one.
I got online to complete the “training.” It took all of five minutes with two questions to answer, and they were multiple choice. If I got it wrong, they gave me another go. This is very poor [training] and unacceptable to me for the task you are asking of us. It really does not give me confidence in people’s observation abilities to correctly identify abuse. I am really concerned for the times we will get this wrong.
From Fulton schools spokeswoman:
Just to be clear this is not a school system mandate, but Georgia State mandate signed by Gov. Deal during the last legislative session. Systems are simply complying with the law. Fulton is going above the state law requirement by providing training. The training is online and at each school. FCS is also providing a new code of conduct so that volunteers can read and understand best practices before they begin to volunteer.
Safety will always be a priority for the school system. So although the law adds additional responsibility for volunteers, more importantly, it’s an extra safety-net to expose possible student abuse. The spirit of the law is to add more eyes and ears to the identification and reporting of child abuse in our schools as well as any child service organization.
As far as liability, the law clearly states that there are no legal consequences for any child abuse report made in “Good Faith;” however, failure to report when you suspect that a child is being abused can be considered a misdemeanor in Georgia. Once a report is received, all allegations are thoroughly investigated by the appropriate agency or department.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog