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Child Abuse: Legal Overview of Nonprofit Responsibility

You’re a board member of a nonprofit that works with kids. An employee you know personally tells you she suspects that one of the children in their care is being abused or neglected at home.

Are you responsible for reporting the suspected abuse or neglect? How do you go about that? To rightly manage this risk and minimize the liability for your nonprofit and yourself, you must first understand the scope of your duties as a board member.

As a board member, what legal duties does this knowledge trigger? What steps must you take first?

Reasonable suspicion of child abuse is a legal hot potato that must be handled quickly and carefully. However, as a director receiving second-hand information you likely are not the officer responsible for implementing your nonprofit’s child abuse reporting policy. Make sure that person is promptly notified to implement that reporting policy.

If your nonprofit has not adopted such a policy, you will want to make sure your CEO is immediately notified and also encouraged to consult qualified legal counsel.

What is the legal definition of child abuse?

Child abuse is defined by state law, but generally includes non-accidental physical injury to a child and actual, or attempted, sexual abuse or exploitation of a child. This usually includes mental and psychological as well as physical injuries, or failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, psychological care, physical care, medical care, or supervision.

What are the signs of child abuse? What should I look for?

Signs of potential abuse or neglect in children include [1] unexplained burns, cuts, and/or bruises, [2] internal injuries/broken bones, [3] extreme hunger or thirst, [4] unlikely stories about how injuries were sustained, [5] lack of personal hygiene or cleanliness, or [6] unusual knowledge of sex at a young age.

Who is responsible for reporting child abuse and/or neglect?

Most states create two categories of reporters: mandatory reporters and permissive reporters.

Who are mandatory reporters?

Mandatory reporters are individuals who are legally obligated to report any such instances of reasonably suspected child abuse and/neglect. This obligation is generally by profession and includes such professions as [1] people who work with children in a professional capacity, e.g., schoolteachers and teachers’ aides, principals, childcare workers, social workers, etc., [2] health care providers including doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, EMTs, hospital personnel, and medical examiners, [3] law enforcement officials, [4] mental health professionals including psychiatrists and counselors, [5] organizations that work with children.

Who are permissive reporters?

Permissive reporters are individuals who are not legally required to report suspected child abuse/neglect but are authorized to do so. In most states, anyone who is not a mandatory reporter is a permissive reporter. Seek legal counsel on what the specifications are according to your local state laws.

When is my obligation to report instances of child abuse/neglect triggered?

Most states employ a “reasonableness standard” to determine when mandatory reporting obligation is triggered. This is expressed in phrases like “reason to suspect”, “reasonable cause to suspect or believe.”

Your nonprofit should have a child abuse reporting policy that should address the specific reporting duties for both categories under your applicable state law. If not, your nonprofit’s legal counsel should be promptly consulted.

Is my reporting obligation absolute?

No, some privileges may overcome mandatory reporting, such as social worker/client privilege, spousal privilege, attorney/client privilege, physician/patient privilege, counselor/counselee privilege, or psychiatrist/patient privilege. However, these privileges are not black and white and vary by state, so if you think a privilege may be applicable, it is prudent to consult with your nonprofit’s legal counsel.

If my duty to report has been triggered, where do I report?

Again be guided by your nonprofit’s reporting policy, and if it is unclear, by their legal counsel. Most states reporting statutes specify reports should be made to a state/local child protective services agency or to a local law enforcement agency. You may also call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child 866-445-2911

How do I make a report?

Usually, states require mandatory reporters to make an initial oral report (in person or telephone), followed by a more detailed written report, often on a form provided by the agency receiving the initial report. In some cases, it can be prudent for an organization to make a joint report with the victim’s parent(s)/guardian(s), or, in some unusual cases, with the repentant abuser.

How soon after my obligation is triggered should I make the report?

Again, be guided by your nonprofit’s policy or legal counsel. While this varies by state, the rule of thumb is quickly. Some states require the initial oral report be made immediately upon reasonably suspecting a child is abused or neglected, with the written report being made within twenty-four, forty-eight, or seventy-two hours from the initial report.

After I report the suspected abuse or neglect, am I responsible to take further steps?

Typically, no. Reporting laws generally require state authorities to take specific actions upon receiving a report of child abuse/neglect. Most states require the child protective services agency investigate the report immediately or within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. If the report is verified, the agency must take appropriate actions to protect the child, such as removing the child from the abusive situation and placing the child in protective custody or medical treatment.

That said, your duties to your nonprofit go well beyond mere legal compliance and minimizing legal risks. Your duties of care are proactive. You and your nonprofit want to always be alert for steps that will advance the mission of your organization and foster the well-being of the constituents you are serving. That responsibility continues coextensive with your term as a nonprofit director.