False Allegations Of Child Abuse Can End Up In Civil, Criminal, Or Juvenile Courts
The Jerry Sandusky criminal trial is over; the civil lawsuits are in active settlement mode. Undoubtedly, the entire country is more tuned into child abuse than it ever was. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that about 105 bills on the reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect have been introduced in 2012 legislative sessions in 30 states and the District of Columbia. All of them include a penalty for failing to report suspected child abuse.
Oregon is one of the states which recently enacted child abuse reporting legislation. It added to the list of mandated reporters any employee or volunteer of an organization providing child-related services or activities, any employee of a higher education institution, and any coach, assistant coach or trainer of child athletes and any individual who provides guidance, instruction or training in youth development activities and youth camps.
Overlooked in the wake of this new awareness is the sad reality of false allegations of child abuse. There is no disputing that child abuse is a serious and pervasive worldwide problem. In most situations, abuse allegations are made responsibly based on actual abuse.
To address this concern, Oregon also passed legislation regarding the false reporting of child abuse. The law reads:
“(1) A person commits the offense of making a false report of child abuse if, with the intent to influence a custody, parenting time, visitation or child support decision, the person:
(a) Makes a false report of child abuse to the Department of Human Services or a law enforcement agency, knowing that the report is false; or
(b) With the intent that a public or private official makes a report of child abuse to the Department of Human Services or a law enforcement agency, makes a false report of child abuse to the public or private official, knowing that the report is false.
(2) Making a false report of child abuse is a Class A violation.”
In fact, most states have similar statutes. For instance, Arkansas provides that:
“(a) A person commits the offense of making a false report under this chapter if he or she purposely makes a report containing a false allegation to the Child Abuse Hotline knowing the allegation to be false.
(b) (1) A first offense of making a false report under this chapter is a Class A misdemeanor. (2) A subsequent offense of making a false report under this chapter is a Class D felony.”
Colorado provides that “No person … shall knowingly make a false report of abuse or neglect to a county department or local law enforcement agency. Any person who willfully violates the provisions …commits a Class 3 misdemeanor and shall be punished … [and] shall be liable for damages proximately caused thereby.”
The repercussions of false abuse allegations are traumatizing and stigmatizing to the child allegedly abused. The child may have to undergo unnecessary psychological and/or medical examinations. And commonly, rifts between the child and his or her parents and siblings may develop. In the divorce and custody context, an accusation of child abuse may begin in family court, but it can quickly wind up in civil, criminal, or juvenile courts.
Child Abuse Allegations Difficult To Prove
When child abuse allegations are true, CPS (Child Protective Services) must do everything possible to protect the child. When false accusations are made, the accused individual’s morally upright reputation can be permanently damaged. CPS workers know that abuse allegations are difficult to prove. Learning to decipher false allegations from real ones is a demanding and perpetual challenge. In either case, they can lead to protracted and difficult legal battles.
A Supplement from the Publisher:
A Short Summary of Ohio’s Penalty for False Reporting
Ohio has enacted similar laws through the Ohio Revised Codes to help define and protect children, but also make it a crime for those who fail in their duties to protect children. One of the main aspects of these codified laws is the “duty” aspect. In ORC Section 2151.421 the State lists who is responsible for reporting and listing child abuse. This section lists nearly every profession that is affiliated at all with children. There are a few exceptions, but not many.
There are some difficulties with the balancing measures of the Ohio Revised Codes. In ORC 2151.421, the State requires anyone who has “reasonable” knowledge to report possible child abuse situations, stating:
“No person described in division (A)(1)(b) of this section who is acting in an official or professional capacity and knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect based on facts that would cause a reasonable person in a similar position to suspect, that a child under eighteen years of age or a mentally retarded, developmentally disabled, or physically impaired child under twenty-one years of age has suffered or faces a threat of suffering any physical or mental wound, injury, disability, or condition of a nature that reasonably indicates abuse or neglect of the child, shall fail to immediately report that knowledge or reasonable cause to suspect to the entity or persons specified in this division.” (ORC 2151.421)
Turning to ORC 2921.14, it is listed as a first degree misdemeanor for anyone who “knowingly” causes or reports a false child abuse allegation. This may create a hard balancing test when it comes to false child abuse convictions, as it’s almost always a judgment call to prove that the person “knowingly” made false accusations, or they “reasonably believed” there could have been abuse. In short, Ohio has codified serious standards when it comes to child abuse allegations, but these standards can be hard to decipher and can often lead to an increase of false accusations to avoid liability or a lack of false accusations to avoid a crime. There is a delicate balancing game taking place between these revised codes.
Child abuse should always be reported; unfortunately, due to the balancing standard between the laws, some individuals will not report and some will over report. Both of which can lead to serious harm. When an individual is falsely accused of child abuse, regardless of a conviction or proof of innocence, a life can be ruined; and when someone fails to report, a life can be ruined. In short, be keen, pay attention, and report when the facts make sense, and report smart.
About the Author:
Daniel Pollack is a professor at Yeshiva University’s School of Social Work in New York City and a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases, including child abuse, neglect and dependency cases. Dan is a frequent guest contributor to the Ohio Family Law Blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in Policy & Practice, 71(1), 30 (2013).
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Guest Contributor, Daniel Pollack
Daniel Pollack, MSSA (MSW), JD is a full professor at Yeshiva University's School of Social Work in New York City and Senior Fellow, Office for Foster Care and Adoption, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA.