School personnel play an important role in identifying and reporting child abuse. Educators are in a unique position to observe and interact with children on a daily basis. As a result, they are more likely to see changes in a child that would indicate abuse or neglect. Children may also confide in school personnel, relating experiences that indicate they were subjected to abuse. Because of this unique and important role, Arizona law mandates that educators report suspected abuse.
In order to avoid legal liability, school personnel must be mindful of their obligations under the Arizona child abuse reporting statute. Under the law, school personnel are “mandatory reporters.” Arizona statute sets forth the standard for determining under which conditions school officials are required to report suspected abuse. Failure to report suspected child abuse to the proper authorities can result in criminal sanctions and liability for money damages, and is almost certainly a violation of school policy, which could result in disciplinary action.
Because the Legislature has recognized that not every instance of suspected abuse will turn out to be abuse, it has provided immunity from civil and criminal liability for reporting suspected child abuse unless the reporter “acted with malice or unless the person has been charged with or is suspected of abusing of neglecting the child or children in question.” A.R.S. § 13-3620(J). Therefore, school personnel who properly understand which types of suspected abuse trigger the mandatory reporting requirement and who reasonably believe that abuse has occurred should feel confident in reporting the suspected abuse.
Arizona’s Child Abuse Reporting Law
Arizona law requires school personnel who reasonably believe that a child is a victim of any of the following types of abuse to immediately report the matter to a law enforcement officer or to the Department of Child Safety:
- Physical Injury
- Abuse (defined by A.R.S. § 8-201)
- Child Abuse (defined by A.R.S. § 13-3612)
- Reportable Offenses (including child prostitution and incest, among others)
- Neglect (defined by A.R.S. § 8-201)
- Denial or Deprivation of Necessary Medical Treatment, Surgical Care or Nourishment of an Infant (see A.R.S. § 36-2281)
See also A.R.S. § 13-3620.
Each of these six categories has a specific statutory definition, so it is important to understand what constitutes each type of abuse. For further guidance on each term, please refer to the Arizona Revised Statutes or contact your school attorney.
If school personnel have a reasonable belief that any of the above offenses have occurred, the statute requires that they immediately report the suspected abuse electronically or by telephone. A.R.S. §13-3620(D). The report must contain (1) the names and addresses of the minor and the parents or custodians of the minor, if known; (2) the minor’s age and the nature and extent of the abuse, physical injury or neglect, including evidence of prior abuse, physical injury or neglect; and (3) any other information the person reporting believes might be helpful in establishing the cause of the abuse, physical injury or neglect.
What is a “reasonable belief” that abuse has occurred?
The legal requirement is that anyone who is a mandatory reporter and “reasonably believes” that a child has been the victim of abuse must report. So, what is “reasonable belief”? The phrase is not defined by Arizona law. However, it may be helpful to know that the law was changed in 2003 from “reasonable grounds” to the current standard, “reasonably believes.” To the extent that this standard differs from the earlier reporting standard, it is, if anything, more subjective, and a report is more easily justified, and immunities more readily available for reporting, by relying upon the educator’s own intuition applied to the facts.
The change in law makes it clear that the legislature intended to make it easier for suspected child abuse to be reported. As a result, school personnel are advised to report whenever they believe a child has been the victim of abuse. It is not necessary to have visual evidence of the abuse before forming a reasonable belief. Educators are not responsible for determining whether or not abuse has actually occurred; they only have a duty to report. Law enforcement and the Department of Child Safety are responsible for investigating reports of abuse.
Failure to Report
The statute sets forth specific criminal penalties for failure to initiate required reports of suspected child abuse. Under the statute, “a person who violates any provision of this section is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor, except if the failure to report involves a reportable offense the person is guilty of a Class 6 felony.”
Educators concerned about the child’s welfare may also fear that reporting child abuse could trigger a lawsuit by the person being reported. However, Arizona law provides protection for those persons who report abuse where the report is not motivated by malice. A.R.S. § 13-3620(J). The law defines “malice” to include “a wish to vex, annoy or injure another person, or an intent to do a wrongful act”, A.R.S. § 1-215. As long as school personnel are reporting information that has been observed or reliably told to them, which has led the personnel to have a reasonable belief that abuse has occurred, it will be unlikely that the report would be found to be motivated by malice. Because the types of abuse that must be reported have very specific legal definitions, it is critically important that each member of a school’s staff have access to a reader-friendly policy that explains what abuse is, what reasonable belief is, and how to report suspected abuse. Schools should ensure that they have adopted clear policies on what, when, and how to report suspected abuse and should provide annual training to school staff on the mandatory reporting rules.
This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please feel free to contact Education Law Attorney, Cathleen M. Dooley at 480.461.5331, log on to udallshumway.com, or contact an attorney in your area.