The case, Christopher Smith v. State of Indiana, provides a direct example of legal ramifications for failure to report suspected child abuse immediately. “The case teaches us that waiting four hours to report suspected abuse is too long, and that the first call should be to the appropriate authorities,” said Julie Reed, ISMA general counsel.
The case stems from the report of a student rape on school grounds. The principal discussed the situation with school leaders, but the group decided to investigate the allegations before alerting police or the Department of Child Services (DCS). The group did contact the facility where the victim resided to obtain consent for medical treatment.
Four hours after notification, the principal reported the incident to legal authorities. The Indiana Supreme Court found this to be in violation of the immediacy requirement to report child abuse. It stated, “In sum, it appears from the record as though when time was of the essence, Smith dawdled, delayed, and did seemingly everything he could to not contact DCS or the police. It is therefore a reasonable inference to draw, from this evidence, that Smith knowingly failed to 'immediately' report the child abuse as he was obligated to do by statute.”
Caution from the ISMA
The ISMA reminds you the law requires everyone – including physicians, nurses, teachers, grandparents or neighbors – who suspects child abuse to report it immediately to either the police or the DCS.
Failure to do so is a Class B misdemeanor, a penalty resulting in imprisonment for up to 180 days and a fine of up to $1,000.
“The legal definitions of child abuse are very complicated and fact sensitive,” said Reed. “But the Indiana Supreme Court seems to have made clear in this case that they don’t want people to try to determine whether child abuse has occurred. That is the role of law enforcement, and, ignorance of the law is no excuse. The duty is simple: When you suspect child abuse or neglect, immediately report it to law enforcement or DCS.”
To protect citizens, the reports can be made anonymously and are kept confidential. Anyone reporting suspected child abuse is presumed to have acted in good faith and is thus immune from civil or criminal liability related to the report. Additionally, privacy laws permit you to provide patient information to third parties (including law enforcement) when required by law.
Indiana child abuse resources
Reported child abuse cases in Indiana have increased over 100 percent since 2006, according to Prevent Child Abuse Indiana (PCAIN).
PCAIN defines child abuse as:
- Infliction of physical injury on a child or allowing another to do so
- Chronic failure of an adult to meet the basic needs of a child for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education or supervision
- Utilization of a child under age 14 for sexual gratification by an adult or older child in a position of power, or permitting another person to do so
Report should be specific
PCAIN suggests providing authorities the following information when reporting suspected child abuse:
- Exact name, address and telephone number of the parent, guardian or custodian
- Age of the child
- Exact description of what you saw or what the child said to you
- A history of behaviors you have witnessed that concern you
The Indiana DCS provides a form (310) to help document alleged child abuse and neglect. Use it to report cases to the local DCS. Find the form at in.gov.
Additional resources are available here.