Privacy Bills in the Senate, a First Look: Rollie Heath Wants More of Us Looking Out for Child Abuse
by Eileen | 2:23 pm, January 21, 2013 | Comments Off
WHAT: SB 13-012, Expanding the professions required to report suspected child abuse
WHY: For the children, duh.
In a nutshell, here I am on this. It’s a terrific idea, but jurisdictions that have passed similar laws have had unpleasant unintended consequences and we need to be mindful of how write and apply such a law. Inviting all and sundry to phone in the slightest hint of abuse will only flood hotlines and waste a lot of time. The key to cutting abuse is an educated public. Don’t tell people to report abuse if you aren’t prepared to teach them what to look for.
To the list of people already legally enjoined to report any suspected cases of child abuse or neglect to the state, Sen. Heath seeks to add staff members of private sports programs. My heart is more than a little sick at the thought that anyone would need a legal mandate to interfere in child abuse, but I know all about Kitty Genovese. It’s not a matter of what people are capable of doing; it’s a matter of what people are capable of not doing.
I am not, though, I promise, going to go all ‘If we save one child…’ on you. I’ll leave those theatrics to U.N. Ambassadors and B-list starlets. Precisely because we are making legislation regarding children, who are less able than anyone to speak up for themselves, and because people tend to go with emotion when it comes to protecting children, diligence is in order. It’s not enough to do something for the children; it’s got to be the right thing. My libertarian panic alarm is in good order and I am already ahead of you in noting that private organizations will come under state control and that our proper fear of harm coming to children has been raised.
It sounds right to think that people who have regular interactions with a child are better placed than most to recognize signs of abuse and neglect. We already place other professions under ‘Duty to Warn’ and ‘Duty to Care’ edicts in relation to those over whom they have authority or with whom they enjoy higher-than-usual trust and control. But we do ourselves a disservice to think that having one’s heart in the right place by itself confers a magic ability to identify abuse.
Current Colorado law on reporting child abuse calls for:
…a person who has reasonable cause to know or suspect that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect or has observed a child being subject to circumstances or conditions that would reasonably result in abuse or neglect to report his or her suspicion to proper authorities…
Sounds great. Highly nebulous. An good first year law student could argue that the client lacked “reasonable cause to know.” Anyway, punishing adults who don’t report abuse when they could have is a secondary issue here. We want people to report legitimate abuse early and we want people to know what to look for.
Still, if SB 012 gives people pause and puts it into their head to pay attention, how harmful can it be? There are hard data that the media campaigns surrounding abuse reporting laws does a lot to bring legitimate cases of abuse to light. But they also trigger overreporting. And that brings me to why I consider this to be a bill with privacy implications. A state triggered investigation into child abuse claims is intrusive for child and alleged abuser alike. Exams to ascertain and record abuse, both physical and psychological, are difficult for children to endure. Being asked to prove you haven’t hurt a child can’t be the highlight of anyone’s day.
That process exists for a reason. To say that sometimes has to give way, as is the case with abuse, requires serious and unflagging effort into having a good faith belief that abuse is occurring before getting into the entire process. Launching into all that on the say-so of someone who may not be all that well-trained in recognizing signs of abuse can have godawful ramifications. The U.K. tried a similar law to that proposed in SB 012. The state asked workers entering another person’s home – meter readers and repairmen and probably the pimply kid who delivered your new sofa – to observe for signs of abuse and neglect and to report.
They did not bother to teach any of these people how to spot signs of child abuse and neglect. They just ginned up a fear that abuse was rampant and only the gallant army of the untrained could stop it.
The results were predictable. So eager for praise that they’d already decided to find something somewhere, people with no clue what they hell they were doing started finger-pointing. Families were torn apart, kids spent time in state-care, parents were stigmatized, homes were ransacked, the new sofa got marked up, and so on. I’d like to see hard numbers on how many children, who were perfectly fine, are now in longterm therapy to work past that one time when the state jailed Mummy on the say-so of the sofa delivery boy.
As secondary concerns, there’s now the matter of people who meant well but were hopelessly inept dealing with the harm they inflicted and of families terrified to call the plumber lest it end up with pending indictments.
OK, now the thing that most merits pointing out is that no one in Colorado wants to tell the lawn boy or the ski coach to start acting like licensed social workers. Jonathan Singer, the bill’s House sponsor is a social worker. That gives him skills to craft a sensible implementation of an extension to mandatory reporting of abuse.
So, let’s suppose SB 012 passes. How does it get enacted? Are staff at private sports programs required to complete training of some sort? Who pays for this? We can’t presume that a guy who teaches the finer points of bump-set-spike a few nights a week has had extensive training with recognizing abuse.
Resources and attention are better spent in working with social workers to screen reports quickly and accurately, dismissing unfounded reports with minimum resources spent and trauma to the child. Additionally, why not offer courses on recognizing valid signs of abuse and neglect to anyone who wants to learn? For the love of god, replace those shoddy, manipulative ad campaigns that basically encourage histrionic overreaction if anything is out of the ordinary. That’s Homeland Security’s turf.
Alright, alright, how do things look for SB 012? It’s in the Judiciary, held 3-2 by Dems. There’s nothing in the bill that screams controversy or is likely to make anyone do anything to kill it. For obvious reasons, anything promising to protect children is nigh unassailable these days. The problem is in what will happen if it gets passed and then we muck up the application. By the same token, SB 012 could be the jumping off point for a solid educational effort aimed at the general public.
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