Lack of reporting of suspected Child Abuse by schools an ‘epidemic,’ prosecutors say
Thousands of Tennessee schoolchildren may be vulnerable because of lax reporting and investigating of possible child abuse, according to the findings of a Tennessean investigation.
‘We have one shot to get a good statement’
There are several reasons an educator might not report an abuse suspicion directly to police or child services, said Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“Sometimes, people err on the wrong side; they think they want more information to feel more sure that it’s real before they report it. Frankly, that’s really dangerous,” Houser said.
Crump, who serves as prosecutor for Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties, said school officials could divulge information to the possible perpetrator, posing a safety risk to an abused child.
School officials are not trained as forensic investigators, so trying to interview a student about possible abuse can have other drastic consequences.
“We have one shot to get a good statement from a child,” Crump said.
The student may not tell a school official everything that happened, Crump said. That could create conflicting statements in the future, or push the school to decide there is no problem when in fact abuse occurred.
Crump knows of one case in which a counselor decided no abuse occurred, but police and Crump’s office filed charges after conducting their own investigation.
‘I’d go with more of a carrot than a stick’
Scott Berkowitz, executive director of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said schools nationwide must tell teachers to report directly to authorities if they even suspect abuse.
More training for all educators may work better than prosecuting those who do not report, he said.
“I’d go with more of a carrot than a stick on this,” Berkowitz said.
Crump said he’s spoken in schools, telling teachers to go directly to school resource officers once they suspect abuse.
But these officers are typically not in private schools like Brentwood Academy.
While Brentwood Academy officials have said all of their staff is trained on mandatory reporting, the student handbook lays out a conflict resolution process that does not specifically mention what to do if sex abuse is suspected.
There can be broader, cultural issues when it comes to abuse and reporting in private schools, said Houser, the spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“Whenever you end up with an environment that really prides itself on being elite, it can sow some seeds, because you have other priorities that are (seen) as most important,” Houser said.
“Those are vulnerabilities an offender can then exploit to perpetuate abuse and protect themselves.”
Tennessee child abuse hotline
Any adult who suspects or knows of child abuse in Tennessee is required by law to notify the Department of Children’s Services or local law enforcement. The DCS abuse hotline is 877-237-0004.
Who is reporting child abuse?
While some states require only professionals, such as teachers or doctors, to report child abuse, Tennessee requires any person who suspects any form of child abuse to report it to child services or the police.
In 63 percent of cases across the country, professionals report the abuse, according to the 2015 Child Maltreatment report from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Here’s a breakdown of who submits reports for cases that received an investigation or some form of response.
- Education personnel: 18.4 percent
- Legal, law enforcement personnel: 18.2 percent
- Social services personnel: 10.9 percent
- Parents: 6.8 percent
- Relatives: 6.8 percent
- Anonymous sources: 7.4 percent