In 2001, graduate assistant Mike McQueary followed Penn State protocol when, after witnessing retired football coach Jerry Sandusky molesting a boy in a locker room shower, he told Coach Joe Paterno and two other superiors what he saw. As a mandated reporter, McQueary was required by law to report suspected child abuse.
After the story came to light in 2011, McQueary – then assistant football coach – faced brutal retaliation: defamation by Penn State, suspension from his coaching duties, and his contract was not renewed. He told The Inquirer that “his ties to the case have cost him his livelihood, marriage, and career.”
McQueary was awarded millions in a lawsuit against Penn State and an additional $5 million in a whistle-blower suit. His experience is not an isolated event, and the vast majority of mandatory reporters are not made financially whole for the experience. A few examples of bad outcomes for people who performed their legal mandate to report child abuse:
- Psychologist Jim Singer lost his license to practice.
- Psychologist Mike Gillum received death threats and lost his job.
- Carolyn Huff, a licensed nurse psychotherapist has been fighting her Board of Nursing for almost five years for due process.
- Psychologist Michael Tilus was issued a letter of reprimand, transferred, and his scheduled promotion was rescinded until the New York Times covered his story.
Despite current laws meant to protect mandatory reporters of child abuse, the above is just a small sample of documented cases of retaliation where immunity protections were insufficient.
Recent court cases where mandated reporters have been retaliated against have resulted in two amicus briefs, demonstrating the unity of professional organizations in supporting mandatory reporters.
Schott V. Wenk
The court concluded that a Columbus, Ohio, school administrator, a mandatory reporter who suspected and reported sexual child abuse by the child’s father, could be held liable and not protected under the immunity law. The student’s parents, who alleged the administrator was retaliating against them due to a dispute over their daughter’s Individual Education Plan, sued the administrator. The court ruled that a person who is the subject of a mandatory report (in this case, the father), may bring a legal proceeding against the reporter, alleging retaliation.
Jones v. Wang
G.J., an infant, sustained skull and rib fractures while in his parents’ care (the Joneses). The story his mother gave was medically inconsistent with his injuries. Radiologists suspected child abuse, which was consistent with medical literature. Consequently, Dr. Claudia Wang, medical director of UCLA Suspected Child Abuse and Negligence Team, reasonably suspected child abuse at the hands of his parents and believed he would be in further danger if released from the hospital. Dr. Wang reported the suspected abuse and asked a social worker to place a hold on the infant.
The baby was hospitalized for two days for further evaluation and safety. (Dr. Wang recommended hospitalization and his mother agreed, though the majority found a factual dispute about whether the mother’s consent was voluntary.) During the infant’s stay, the infant had a sitter in his room, wore a tracking bracelet, and could be with his parents. Based upon the child spending two days in the hospital, the parents sued Dr. Wang claiming their child was unreasonably seized. The district court denied Dr. Wang’s motion for summary judgment and a divided panel affirmed.
Dr. Wang’s recommendation coincided with best practices (which requires hospitalization if necessary to protect an injured child from abuse) and with medical ethics (which only permits patient discharge into a safe environment), but on appeal, the majority found it was a clearly established violation of the law and denied immunity to Dr. Wang. Amici argued that many doctors refuse to consult or report on child abuse cases due to fear of getting sued by parents and urged a strengthening of immunity protections.
Recognizing the loopholes in reporting immunity, the Secretary of Health and Human Services made recommendations to Congress for strengthening immunity in child maltreatment cases.
Retaliation against mandated reporters takes many forms: defamation, harassment, job loss and loss of parental custody, just to name a few. And it happens for various reasons, including the prevention of lawsuits against government agencies, to protect the image and brand of an institution or person, and because federal oversight of immunity protections is nonexistent.
The results of such retaliation may be devastating. Consider the impact of many mandatory reporters reading about what happened to McQueary. The outcome may be a decrease in child abuse reporting for fear of retaliation, leading to further abuse and deaths.
Since the Penn State scandal, several states have passed laws aimed at punishing mandated reporters who fail to report child abuse, as well as laws that widen the universe of people who are deemed mandated reporters. But few, if any, legislators are pursuing changes to enforce protections for mandatory reporters who report child abuse.
Consequently, since no entity in any state investigates instances of retaliation, mandatory reporters are forced to defend themselves and their reputations, often at a huge personal, financial, and emotional expense. Other than hiring a lawyer, there is nowhere for the mandatory reporter to report retaliation or access guidance, support, or resources.
In 1974, the federal government passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, or CAPTA, which provided minimum national standards states must meet to qualify for federal funding. To motivate mandatory reporters to report abuse, CAPTA requires all states to have “provisions for immunity from prosecution under State and local laws and regulations for individuals making good faith reports.” All states have granted criminal and civil immunity to mandatory reporters acting in good faith.
However, federal oversight of CAPTA is grossly insufficient. Neither the individual states nor the federal government ensure that immunity laws are followed. This leaves mandatory reporters who are retaliated against with the devastating realization that the laws meant to protect them are meaningless.
Solving this problem means first, we, as a society, have to acknowledge that we have one. Though the media has covered individual cases of retaliation, no one has investigated the issue and connected the dots. No mandatory reporter should have to go through what Mike McQueary experienced for simply adhering to his legal mandate to report child abuse.
Mandatory reporters are the voice for abused and neglected children. Let us do everything we can to allow their voices to be heard.
Franne Sippel, EdD is a licensed psychologist in private practice. She has worked in the field of mental health since 1989. Much of her experience has been working with sexually abused children and adolescents.