Mandated reporters are required to immediately report suspicions of child abuse and neglect to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) by phone, followed by a written report (called a 51A) within 48 hours, when in their professional capacity they have “reasonable cause to believe that a child is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from:
- abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare, including sexual abuse;
- neglect, including malnutrition;
- physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth, or
- human trafficking – sexually exploited child; or
- human trafficking – labor as defined by section 20M of chapter 233” (Mass. General Laws).
The law also makes clear that “if a mandated reporter is a member of the staff of a medical or other public or private institution, school, or facility, the mandated reporter may instead notify the person or designated agent in charge of such institution, school, or facility who shall become responsible for notifying the Department in the manner required by this section. A mandated reporter may, in addition to filing a report under this section, contact local law enforcement authorities or the [Office of the] Child Advocate about the suspected abuse or neglect.” Fines of up to $1,000 can punish mandated reporters who fail to report.
Reporters are not expected to be investigators. It’s important to note that this legal language requires the reporting of suspected abuse to DCF. No state, including Massachusetts, requires the reporter to have conclusive proof that the abuse or neglect occurred before reporting. The law is clear: Reports must be made when abuse is observed, or the reporter “suspects” or “has reasonable cause to believe” that a child has been or is being harmed. If a reporter asks the child too many questions, or for greater detail so they feel more confident before filing a report, the child may become confused or re-traumatized. The child may have a sense that they are not believed, or—in the worst case—could stop talking completely. The job of investigation should be left to the professionals at DCF and law enforcement, who are trained in interviewing children and youth who have been victims of trauma. Incidents must be reported as soon as they are noticed or suspected. The benefit of the doubt is always given to the suspected victim, and waiting for conclusive proof may put the child/youth at further risk.
Mandated reporters are also protected under the law. If the report is made in good faith, mandated reporters are protected from liability in any civil or criminal action, and from any discriminatory or retaliatory actions by an employer—even if the report is deemed unfounded after investigation. The name of the reporter is not disclosed by DCF to the parents/guardians of a child who is the subject of the report.
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