Mandated reporting laws often are associated with protecting children from abuse, but young people aren’t the only ones protected by these laws. By understanding the mandated reporting laws that apply in your area and training ministry personnel to follow them, you can better protect the people in your ministry.
Determine Which Behaviors Warrant Mandated Reports
Work with a locally licensed attorney to learn which behaviors must be reported. Behaviors that may be covered by mandated reporting laws include:
Child abuse and neglect.
Elder abuse and neglect.
Abuse and neglect of mentally or physically disabled individuals.
Threats to the well-being of others.
Define Who Qualifies as a Mandated Reporter
Laws vary as to who is required to report based on the state you live in and the type of dangerous behavior involved.
Child abuse and neglect. In some states, everyone is considered a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect. In other states, only specific professions are considered mandated reporters of these behaviors. These professions typically include medical and school personnel, counselors, social workers, peace officers, and clergy. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services provides a fact sheet, Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect, which discusses reporting laws for clergy, privileged communication, and a list of which states recognize clergy as mandated reporters.
Elder abuse and neglect. Similar to child abuse reporting laws, some states require clergy to report suspected elder abuse and neglect. You can check with your state’s Department on Aging or Department of Elder Services to see if you would be considered a mandated reporter of elder abuse. The National Adult Protective Services Association also provides data about elder abuse, including risk factors, perpetrators, and prevalence.
Abuse and neglect of mentally or physically disabled. Mandatory reporting laws for abuse of the disabled vary significantly from state to state. Clergy are often recognized as mandated reporters as long as the disclosure was not made during a legally confidential situation such as a pastoral counseling session or confessional situation.
Suicidal Threats. There are no federal laws that mandate reporting suicidal thoughts or suicide risk. Each state has its own laws with regard to whether reporting is required. In some states, certain licensed professionals may be subject to rules that require a report of suicidal thoughts. This may include medical professionals, mental health professionals, teachers and school personnel, and law enforcement personnel. Some states also require that parents be notified of a minor’s suicidal threats.
Threats to the well-being of others. Some states require reporting if there is a threat of imminent physical harm to others.
Regardless of whether an individual is required to report, most states permit an individual to report if he or she has a reasonable belief that abuse has occurred or someone is in imminent danger. If you believe someone is in imminent danger or presents an immediate threat to someone else, call the police.
Understand Reasonable Cause
Reporters may be hesitant to file a report unless they have indisputable evidence of abuse. In many cases, though, such evidence is unavailable, making it difficult for reporters to discern when they should report their suspicions.
Many laws require that mandated reporters file a report when they have “reasonable cause,” or a reason to believe that abuse is occurring. It’s best to evaluate all of the facts, including the context of the situation and the credibility of the parties involved, when determining whether there is reasonable cause to file a report. When in doubt, immediately seek legal advice from a locally licensed attorney—many states require that the report be made within 48 to 72 hours of learning of the suspected abuse. Remember that all states provide protection from legal action if an erroneous report was made in good faith.
Even if the situation does not warrant a report, it’s a good idea to complete and keep on file an incident report describing the accident, the injury, and communications among the involved parties. This report may help protect the church from legal action stemming from the incident. Keep reports confidential and share them only with those who have a "need to know." Sharing information too broadly could lead to a claim of defamation or invasion of privacy.
Train Ministry Personnel on Procedures
Ministry leaders, with the help of an attorney, should develop a policy for reporting abuse. Define who is a mandated reporter, the behaviors that warrant a report, and the proper reporting procedures.
Train ministry staff and volunteers to follow this policy. When laws change, update your policy and retrain personnel to correspond with any new requirements.