You might not know the full extent of what’s happening in a child’s home. But if you see a child with poorly explained bruises or a broken arm, or if a child talks about an inappropriate relationship with an adult, say something. Do not remain silent.
It doesn’t make sense that certain people are required by law to report potential child abuse to the Department of Health and Human Services but are not legally required to undergo training about how to report abuse and are unlikely to be penalized if they don’t report it.
But the issue is larger than how to get mandated reporters — such as police, teachers and medical personnel — to follow the law. It’s about making a cultural change. When Mainers, whether they are mandated reporters or not, do nothing as a reverend sexually abuses multiple children over 40 years, as a Maine State Police report suggests, the problem is a large one.
The report contains accounts of counselors, law enforcement officers and a school official who may have known that Bob Carlson was sexually abusing boys. But much of the report is redacted, and it’s not clear how many victims there were, what happened to them or how many people had some evidence and did not tell a district attorney’s office or the state.
State police are part of the solution of helping the Bangor area learn from what happened and should provide as much information as possible.
Police, in addition to sexual assault advocates and all types of mandated reporters, also need to be part of recommending changes to ensure that more people who are obligated to report potential abuse actually do. It’s unclear whether or what type of legal changes would get to the root of the issue to encourage more reporting. That’s because even people who are well trained in protocol often don’t report suspected abuse.
Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center studied the issue and found that primary care providers fail to report a substantial number of child maltreatment cases. Though the physicians agreed about the suspicion of abuse in 81 percent of the cases, they did not report 21 percent of them.
Do people fail to report because they have not received proper training? Would people be more likely to report if the law were changed to require a minimum amount of training? Or should it be up to individual agencies to decide whether and how often to train their employees? Would an increased penalty be effective? Answering these questions could help set the direction for effective changes.
Any change should also address people’s fears. Mandated reporters, whether they are pediatricians, teachers or therapists, find themselves in difficult situations when they suspect abuse — because by telling the state they can risk their relationship with a child’s family and, sometimes, a community. It’s not unusual for affected parents and family members to threaten the safety of mandated reporters, and rarely is a situation clear-cut. Reporters might doubt their instincts and wonder what will happen if they’re wrong.
That’s why it’s essential for all mandated reporters to be educated about their role, know how to meet the obligations of the law and be upfront with parents. They must keep in mind that it’s only their responsibility to report; it’s the state’s job to assess whether the abuse happened. And they should not be fooled. All types of people, including those in positions of power and who are widely respected, are capable of committing a crime.
Parents, friends, babysitters and relatives can do their part by developing positive relationships with the children in their lives, so they have someone to trust. If a child shares details of abuse, it’s important that he or she is met with understanding, not incredulity.
Child abuse is a dark subject that can be difficult to discuss, but it’s a pervasive problem in Maine. In 2011, nearly half of assaults reported to Maine’s sexual violence service providers related to child sexual abuse, according to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Everyone’s eyes and ears are needed in order to hold perpetrators accountable, whether they are mandated reporters or not.