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Maine child abuse likely under-reported because law lacks training rules, expert says

Posted Aug. 07, 2012, at 7:31 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2012, at 4:25 a.m.

Maine’s law that obligates professionals who have regular contact with children to report suspected child abuse and neglect has no provision that requires those so-called mandated reporters to receive training about their responsibilities.

And that could be the state law’s greatest weakness and a critical factor in keeping an unknown number of suspected child abuse cases from being reported to authorities, according to a nationally recognized expert who trains investigators, prosecutors, doctors and others to recognize and address signs of child abuse.

“If we really want the reporting laws to be successful, we’re going to have to address training,” said Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children in Winona, Minn. “Everything else is just a Band-Aid. [Training] is clearly the solution that the research makes clear will truly make a difference.”

A Maine State Police report released last week that suggests a number of people may have known the Rev. Bob Carlson sexually abused multiple children, but didn’t come forward to report it, has raised questions about the state’s mandated reporter law and whether it applies.

Maine’s mandatory reporting law requires that 32 types of professionals — from school employees to medical personnel to law enforcement — report child abuse or neglect to the Department of Health and Human Services or to their superiors if they have reason to suspect it has happened.

But the law makes no mention of training for those professionals so they can identify signs of abuse and neglect and so they can properly report them.

As a result, the training mandated reporters receive related to their responsibilities under the mandatory reporting law varies widely, said Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child and Family Services at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s not mandated by the state as to what curriculum is followed or that, even, a training happens,” she said. Still, “people are supposed to know that they’re mandated reporters.”

But the less they understand about their responsibility to report suspected abuse, the less likely mandated reporters are to report it, said Vieth.

“They oftentimes don’t comply with the law because they have virtually no meaningful training,” he said.

States began to adopt mandated reporter laws in the 1960s, following the 1962 publication of the medical paper “The Battered-Child Syndrome,” by five doctors who identified signs medical personnel could look for to determine whether a child had been abused. By 1967, Vieth said, all 50 states had adopted mandatory reporting laws. Maine’s mandatory reporting law first passed in 1965 as a measure to require doctors who see signs of abuse in young patients to make a report to what was then the state Department of Health and Welfare.

Most states expanded their mandatory reporting laws in the 1970s to address sexual abuse of children, Vieth said. The 1975 expansion of Maine’s law also added social workers, psychologists, child care employees, law enforcement, teachers, school officials and others to the mandated reporter list.

While states have become relatively consistent in terms of who is required to report suspected child abuse, state laws have largely failed to address training for mandated reporters, Vieth said. And the research shows the lack of training is what prevents many cases of suspected child abuse from being reported, he said.

“If a community properly trains the mandated reporters, the system works,” Vieth said. “And if the mandated reporters are not trained, the system doesn’t work.”

A semester-long course to familiarize mandated reporters with their responsibilities is ideal, Vieth said, and it’s also important that mandated reporters receive training regularly.

At the Bangor School Department, all employees receive training annually on their mandated reporter responsibilities as part of a comprehensive review of their various responsibilities under state laws and school district policies, said Superintendent Betsy Webb.

“By having it as a frequent part of the conversation, I think it sends the message that, number one, it’s the expectation and, number two, it is safe to do that,” Webb said. “We want to err on the side of being cautious.”

New employees receive a more in-depth training, Webb said.

At Eastern Maine Medical Center, all new employees receive mandated reporter training as part of their orientation, said Mark Moran, a licensed social worker and the organization’s family service and support team coordinator. Certain employees, including nurses and doctors, receive more in-depth mandated reporter training.

“We talk about different types of abuse, some of the common indicators of abuse, what to do when you suspect,” he said.

The Eastern Maine Medical Center training also emphasizes that anyone who reports suspected abuse is immune from civil and criminal liability and that a mandated reporter needs to report suspected abuse even if it took place years ago, Moran said.

Such training is less common at colleges, where fewer employees have regular contact with children. Spokespeople for Husson University in Bangor and the University of Maine in Orono said their employees don’t receive training to familiarize themselves with Maine’s mandatory reporting law.

Maine’s law is also ambiguous as to whether the definition of “school official” and “teacher” extends to university employees.

Cahill-Low, of the Department of Health and Human Services, said her office has a small corps of trainers who visit schools and other organizations that request training. Her office is also working with pediatricians, child abuse advocates and others to improve the department’s online mandated reporter training, so there’s easier access to high-quality training for anybody who wants it.

“I like to think that everybody’s a mandated reporter,” she said. “A child’s welfare is everybody’s business.”

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