Every state in the U.S., including the District of Columbia, has some sort of mandated reporting law for child abuse or neglect. Mandated reporting laws require specific people to report suspicions or evidence of child maltreatment to either law enforcement or their state child welfare agency. Most states require specific professions to be mandated reporters, like doctors, clergy, or school administrators. Indiana goes a step further where any individual who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect must make a report.
In agencies in which there are established reporting protocols, the report may be made to the individual in charge or another designated agent, who also becomes responsible to report or cause a report to be made. This does not relieve individuals who make a report to another staff person of their own obligation to report directly to child protection services or law enforcement unless a report has already been made by the agency liaison. This includes people under the age of 18.
“The key words here are everyone and suspicion,” says Toby Stark, child advocate and former Executive Director of Hamilton County-based Chaucie’s Place, a nonprofit that offers child sexual abuse and youth suicide prevention programs throughout the state. “Here in Indiana everyone is required to report knowledge or suspicion of abuse — you don’t have to prove abuse is happening; proper authorities will do that,” says Stark. “A big point of confusion is the reporting. You are not fulfilling your legal obligation by reporting it to a school principal or the head of an organization or to an alleged perpetrator’s family member. That is not your legal obligation, it’s to the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) or law enforcement.”
If you suspect or know of child abuse, sexual assault, or other maltreatment, contact the Indiana Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-800-5556 or call 911.
There is a slight difference in reporting to the hotline versus 911. Some police departments, depending on their size, scope, and resources, may investigate every report of alleged abuse. DCS will conduct a screening, asking a series of questions to try and understand the nature and severity of a situation. DCS may screen out an allegation, which means it won’t be investigated; investigate and deem it unsubstantiated, which means the agency didn’t think it had enough evidence to move forward on the child’s behalf; or investigate and deem it substantiated, which means action will be taken. “If you look at that, two out of three options are where nothing is going to happen for the child. That’s why we recommend reporting to both law enforcement and DCS,” says Stark.
Anyone issuing a report, regardless of age or whether it’s to law enforcement or the Child Abuse Hotline, is shielded from litigation, prosecution, or any other kind of risk if a claim is incorrect, if the report is made in good faith. “As long as you’ve made a good faith report, we must have faith in the system that it will be considered and investigated appropriately,” says Stark. Indiana doesn’t exempt anyone from this requirement. Doctors, clergy, and attorneys are all required to report suspected abuse, regardless of other privacy privileges they may have.
“Indiana’s mandated reporter law is broad and deep…which offers the best layer of protection for children,” says Stark. But there’s still misconceptions about how to report suspected abuse and the need for enforcement and accountability with the law remains high. “If high-profile individuals and organizations aren’t held legally accountable for not following the law, it’s easy for everyday residents to think they’re not required or accountable, either,” says Stark.
Some high-profile instances have arisen over the last year throughout Indiana. “In these situations, there were a couple things to look at. One, parents went to school or organization administrators thinking they were reporting. Parents have to understand their reporting responsibilities. Two, in each of those situations the organizations don’t appear to have reported in a timely manner. They investigated the reports and allegations on their own,” says Stark.
Many adults may view a claim by a child as false simply because the child has been troublesome or untrue in the past. Stark has clear words for those instances, “That’s not up to the adult.” You must assume it’s the truth and abide by the law. And, Stark adds, “The percentage of children who falsely disclose abuse is miniscule.”
To protect children and adults, “DCS and law enforcement have a process,” says Stark. “They will ask the right questions to determine if a child is being harmed.”
Several Indiana abuse prevention organizations and Child Advocacy Centers offer short courses for adults and children. One program called Stewards of Children®, is designed for adults. “It teaches parents and adults who work with children how to prevent child sexual abuse, recognize the warning signs of abuse, and how to respond to a disclosure or suspicion of abuse legally and ethically,” says Stark. She adds, “What it does is empower adults. Making a report of suspected abuse is a very hard phone call to make, I don’t care who you or what you do for a living, it’s hard.” Stewards of Children aims to educate and empower adults in the importance of making that call.
You can find a course near you by visiting darkness2light.org. You can also find a Child Advocacy Center near you, for help finding other programs in your area. Know that reporting suspicions of abuse to a CAC is not fulfilling your legal requirement. There are only two ways to legally report abuse in Indiana: through law enforcement or the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-800-5556.