On 12/9/11 I posted a dilemma entitled “the duty to report sexual abuse” in which I presented a hypothetical dilemma which raises questions associated with the law governing the duty to report child sexual abuse. In light of an interesting series of comments that the dilemma inspired, I’d like to take fresh look at the dilemma. Here it is, together with my original commentary:
I recently came across an astounding scenario in a standard ethics textbook. I use the term “astounding” because it presents an example of a clear, legal problem that is in reality not an ethical dilemma at all! I’m going to paraphrase the dilemma as follows:
You are a mental health professional conducting research concerning family relationships involving at least one minor child. As part of the research design you interview each family member personally. You also interview the family as a unit. During one such interview, with Mary, a nine-year-old, she tells you that her fifteen-year-old sister, Clara, has sex with her stepfather, Igor. What would you do?
The answer is clearly driven by the law. Most states impose a duty on members of the public to report suspected child abuse, including sexual abuse. Even if it were not a state-imposed requirement, the legal duty to practice reasonably competently as a mental health professional–as discussed in this website– demands reporting of the incident.
The comments posted by a reader raised an interesting question about whether Mary’s comments could be usable by the researcher in light of the fact that they might represent a “hearsay” statement. (A hearsay statement is an out of court statement used in court to prove the truth of the statement.) In other words, the poster was suggesting that Mary’s statements might reflect observations of her sister Clara’s abuse that are hearsay statements and therefore unusable. In our case, it is important to note that hearsay statements are often admissible during the preliminary hearing in any child abuse case in children’s court (the preliminary hearing, which usually occurs about ten days after child protective services has concluded that there is a reasonable suspicion child abuse has occurred, offers an opportunity for CPS to present a court with the evidence CPS is relying upon to prove that the at-risk child is in need of protection). IThe preliminary hearing is usually the first step in any child abuse proceeding. Therefore, Mary’s statements could have an evidentiary use if and when a child abuse proceeding were instituted. The reason hearsay could be permitted at this stage is that the court typically uses a reduced evidentiary standard — this is often referred to as the “reasonable suspicion” standard — to ensure the safety of the child at this early stage. Later on in the court proceedings when the alleged abuser has a fuller opportunity to respond to the allegations, the hearsay might well be inadmissible.
All of this talk about hearsay ignores an important point: Mary’s comments about having been exposed in some way to sexual behavior could well make a mental health professional reasonably suspicious that Mary herself has been victimized. This is an important reason why it is imperative that the researcher reveal to CPS or to a police authority the things Mary has said. This is the only safe way in which the child’s comments can be investigated quickly, safely and th0roughly.