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Patty Kleban: Mandated Reporting Could Have Unforeseen Consequences

by on April 12, 2012 6:00 AM

The popular website www.urbandictionary.com defines it as “in gross excess of what is reasonably expected or an excess of what is suitably required given a stated purpose.” 

Overkill. Doing more than is reasonable to get the desired outcome.

Organizations are responding to the recent Jerry Sandusky scandal events by redefining policies, including what to do if an employee becomes aware of a crime against a child. One of the reactions at Penn State to the Sandusky charges has been to clarify the “mandated reporting” guidelines for people who have contact with children.

(I continue to be amazed at how far reaching the damage created by one sicko — oops, alleged sicko — can go, but that is another topic for another day.)

Mandating reporting is not new.  From Pennsylvania Code 23PA.C.S.§ 6311;   “A person who, in the course of their employment, occupation or practice of their profession, comes into contact with children shall report or cause a report to be made when they have reasonable cause to suspect, on the basis of their medical, professional or other training and experience, that a child under the care, supervision, guidance or training of that person or of an agency, institution, organization or other entity with which that person is affiliated is the victim of child abuse (including child abuse by an individual who is not a perpetrator.)

Initially, the code applied to nurses, physicians, teachers, social workers and other licensed professionals.  It has evolved to include day care workers, camp counselors and anyone who works with kids. 

Penn State's administration has recently decided to expand its definition of what is meant by “works with kids” and therefore, who will need to receive training on the HOWS and WHATS of mandating reporting. This expanded definition will obviously include those employees who were already identified as mandated reporters such as the on-campus day care center staff.

It will also include the employees who work with the university’s summer sports and science camps, as well as any researcher who works with children as subjects in collecting data.  Finally, it is also going to include all faculty given that some of us may have children (under 18 years of age) in our classes. 

I don’t usually whine too much about working at Penn State, but this one seems a bit much.  In our rush to make sure that no children are ever harmed on the Penn State campus again, we feel the need to do something.  I’m just not sure that making everyone a mandated reporter will get us there. Mandated reporting for faculty to cover the children under 18 – given the statistically low numbers of 17 year olds in our classes - seems to be the proverbial “locking the barn door” after the horse has already run away.

In the years that I worked with children in a recreation/clinical setting before I joined the faculty at Penn State, I made reports.

For example, I remember a young girl who was a participant in a program for which I was the facilitator.  As our relationship developed and she began to trust me, she eventually felt comfortable enough to tell me, for a number of reasons, she didn’t feel safe at home.  After hearing her story, I immediately reported it to the treatment team, and, in conjunction with the social worker on our team, filled out the necessary forms.

The report was then filed with Children and Youth Services.  (I should point out that my involvement in the report stopped there.  I continued working with the child but was not required to follow up with the police to make sure the case had moved forward).

I would suggest that most faculty, especially those of us who have experience with kids, won’t draw the line at age 18.

In other words, if any of my students are having personal difficulties and come to me to talk about it, I would try to help them seek assistance even if they are too old to officially be covered by mandated reporting.  For students in trouble, help from a faculty member might mean a walk with the student down to Counseling and Psychological Services rather than a call to the police.  In any event, I would hope that all faculty would hear the concerns of the young people in our classes – not just those under 17. 

Mandated reporting has changed the face of protecting children, but insisting that faculty who have little interaction with children attend a training seems more like PR than good problem solving.

Let’s consider this.  A freshman schedules appointments with an academic advisor over the course of several weeks or even months.  In all likelihood, by the time a relationship is established where a student might feel comfortable sharing something of a personal nature, the student will no doubt be over the age of 18.  Most of the faculty who serve as academic advisors  (where they get to know students on a level that is more personal than in the classroom) already have a list of resources that can be used if a student reports living in a difficult situation or if the student feels unsafe in a relationship.

Mandated reporting would therefore not apply.

Why not train faculty?  What’s the harm, right?  Information is power. How could having more people trained be negative?

I’m concerned it may scare people away. Will it mean that some faculty will put more distance between themselves and their students so as to not have to “hear” a story that means mandated reporting?  Will faculty change how they interact with students?  

The other concern is also that pendulum swing that usually follows the implementation of “new” trainings may mean misunderstandings and unfounded accusations, which are damaging in and of themselves.

The related cost of training the thousands of faculty and staff across the campuses who will have limited contact with children seems hardly worth any public relations boost of saying “All Penn State faculty members have been trained to recognize child abuse.”

A better use of that time and money might be to offer trainings to help all of us recognize and then know what to do when we see the warning signs of pedophilia, work-place bullying, sexual harassment or other on-campus crimes that compromise who WE ARE.  Clarifying the chains of command, confidentiality in identifying problems and protection for whistleblowers could also go a long way toward making PSU a safer place.

After the horrors of the recent months and the concern we all feel about the children involved in this scandal, Penn State and other organizations are taking a look at how we do business, who we let access our facilities and how to create a safe environment, not only for our students, faculty and guests but also for an employee who witnesses or suspects a crime.

Let’s just make sure what we are doing makes sense.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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