Archdiocese moves to teach workers how to report child abuse

Mandy Mundy of Network of Victim Assistance conducts a training session at Stella Maris Parish in South Philadelphia.
Mandy Mundy of Network of Victim Assistance conducts a training session at Stella Maris Parish in South Philadelphia. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 11, 2011

Protecting children from abuse and neglect would seem the first duty of any civil society.

But only in 1912 did the United States adopt its first child-protection laws, and not until 1967 were such laws on the books in every state.

Today, those early efforts sound almost quaint.

In 1967, for example, Pennsylvania required only doctors to notify authorities if they suspected a minor in their care was being abused or neglected.

In 1970, however, the legislature added teachers and nurses to its list of "mandated reporters." Four years later, it adopted the Child Protective Services Law, which expanded the definition of child abuse, greatly enlarged the list of those who must report it, and required the state and every county to create agencies tasked with responding to abuse reports.

In 2009, about 75 percent of the 18,000 child-abuse cases recorded statewide came from mandated reporters.

But Pennsylvania's current definition of child abuse is so detailed and its list of mandated reporters so extensive (firefighters, morticians, and animal-control officers are just a few) that many who should be reporting are displaying a "troubling lack of understanding" of their responsibilities, a survey found.

While state law does not oblige mandated reporters to take training, one of the region's largest caretakers of children - the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia - has launched a comprehensive program for all its employees and any other adults who work with its youths.

Responding to February's grand jury report that it was harboring priests accused of sexually abusing minors, the archdiocese has contracted with the nonprofit Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) in Bucks County to teach 24,000 archdiocesan employees and church volunteers about Pennsylvania's child-protection laws.

The training program began late last month and will continue through early November.

"In Pennsylvania, any professional who works with children is a mandated reporter," Mandy Mundy, NOVA's training director, said at a session last week at Stella Maris Parish in South Philadelphia.

Among the audience of 175 were priests, nuns, teachers, parish employees, and sports team volunteers.

"It's not your job to be sure," said Mundy. "It's your job to have a suspicion." And whether to report a suspicion "is not a choice," she added.

A mandated reporter who sees evidence of "recent" neglect or abuse of a child - defined by law as anyone younger than 18 - and fails to notify authorities faces fines, even jail.

The five categories of child abuse recognized by state law are:

Serious physical injury.

Serious mental injury.

Serious physical neglect.

Sexual abuse or exploitation.

Imminent risk that any such dangers might occur.

Some signs of physical injury are obvious, such as bruises or fractures, Mundy said, but many are not. Evidence suggesting physical neglect can include hunger, weight loss, dirty or tattered clothing, and poor hygiene.

Mental abuse, which is any repeated behavior that does emotional or psychological harm to a child, can include denigration, threats of injury, or exposure to domestic violence.

Abuse can also show as anxiety, depression, anger, or some sudden mood change, said Mundy, but "because we won't see a bruise" when a child is neglected or psychologically tormented, nonphysical forms of abuse are often under-detected.

So, too, is sexual abuse, which ranges well beyond rape, fondling, and indecent exposure. It can include pornographic posing, sexualized talk, and exposure to pornography as a part of a "grooming" process calculated to erode a child's sense of boundaries.

"These behaviors . . . are just as important to report" as sexual contact, Mundy told the group, because reporting them can thwart molestation before it begins.

In many cases, mandated reporters don't have to make their suspicions known directly to civil authorities, but only to a designated person where they work.

A teacher who worries that a student is malnourished, for example, might advise the principal or school psychologist, who must notify the state's ChildLine hotline at 1-800-932-0313.

Hotline employees then call the county agency responsible for child welfare, which must make contact with the child within 24 hours and assess the situation, according to Mundy.

Anyone - mandated reporter or not - who suspects child abuse may notify ChildLine, and cannot be sued in Pennsylvania if the report is made "in good faith."

Mundy appealed to her listeners to overcome any qualms about reporting abuse. The laws exist, she said, "to help a child who is being hurt from being hurt more."


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

 

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