WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that teachers’ reports of child abuse based on conversations with young children can be admitted as testimony, despite a defendant’s constitutional right to confront his accuser.
The unanimous judgment came in the case of a 3½-year-old Ohio boy whose wounds were visible to teachers at his day care center. Upon questioning, he said his mother’s boyfriend was to blame.
Although the boy was too young to testify reliably in court, the teachers’ reports were admitted at trial, resulting in Darius Clark’s conviction and 28-year prison sentence. Clark was sprung in 2012 when Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled that allowing the teachers’ testimony violated his constitutional rights under the 6th Amendment’s confrontation clause.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court’s majority, said that the teachers’ “primary purpose” in asking about the abuse was not to help the prosecution, so allowing their testimony did not violate Clark’s constitutional rights.
When police take children’s statements out of court and present it as testimony at trial, it can violate the confrontation clause. But in this case, Alito said, the child spoke to teachers immediately after his wounds were discovered, in an emergency setting on school grounds — not in preparing courtroom testimony.
The ruling stopped short of saying that all such statements, delivered to people not associated with law enforcement, are admissible in court.
Educators’ groups applauded the decision allowing teachers to protect their students. “This case could have had a chilling effect on teacher-student interactions,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. “Teachers aren’t cops. To confuse those two roles could have hampered educators’ ability to help their students.”
Ohio, supported by the federal government and 42 other states, had contended that an adverse ruling would make it more difficult to prosecute child abuse when the child is the only witness but cannot testify in court. They said teachers should not be equated in those cases with police.
Attorneys for Clark argued that they should get equal access to the boy before statements made to the other side are allowed in court. Only then can the reliability of the child’s story be tested, they said.