A Reminder of North Carolina’s Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting Laws

The recent allegations concerning Jerry Sandusky surfacing out of Penn State University and The Second Mile, the charitable organization founded in State College, Pennsylvania with which Mr. Sandusky was affiliated, have alarmed us all. There is no better time for a reminder of the laws governing the mandatory reporting of child abuse in North Carolina.

Mandated reporting laws vary among states. Some states require certain named professionals to report child abuse, while other states, including North Carolina, require anyone who suspects child abuse to report it.

North Carolina child abuse reporting laws are memorialized in the juvenile code. North Carolina General Statute §7B-301 requires “any person or institution who has cause to suspect that any juvenile is abused, neglected, or dependent, or has died as the result of maltreatment, shall report the case of that juvenile to the director of the department of social services in the county where the juvenile resides or is found.” The statute further stipulates:

Upon receipt of any report of sexual abuse of the juvenile in a child care facility, the director shall notify the State Bureau of Investigation within 24 hours or on the next workday. If sexual abuse in a child care facility is not alleged in the initial report, but during the course of the assessment there is reason to suspect that sexual abuse has occurred, the director shall immediately notify the State Bureau of Investigation. Upon notification that sexual abuse may have occurred in a child care facility, the State Bureau of Investigation may form a task force to investigate the report.

The existence of a special or privileged relationship, such as physician-patient, clergy-penitent, husband-wife and the like, does not exempt those learning of child abuse from reporting. There is an exception for attorneys learning of child abuse in the course of the representation of a client. No privilege, except the attorney-client privilege, constitutes grounds for excluding evidence of abuse, neglect or dependency in a judicial proceeding.

The statute allows for individuals to report child abuse orally, by telephone, or in writing. Although the statute instructs reporters to provide their name, a refusal to do so will not hinder the investigation of alleged child abuse, neglect or dependency.

Those reporting suspected child abuse are granted immunity from civil and criminal liability so long as they are found to have been acting in good faith. Importantly, the statutes build in protection for reporters, requiring that a reporter’s identity be “held in the strictest confidence.” This protection is not absolute and the identity of a reporter may be revealed when necessary in the course of the department’s duties.

There is no statutorily imposed penalty for failing to report child abuse, although there is a possibility for civil and/or criminal liability for failure to report such abuse. Negligence principles may be the basis for a civil suit, for example. Criminal liability is less likely. If imposed, the crime would probably be considered a misdemeanor. There is very little case law on this topic and given the silence of the statute it is difficult to predict the legal ramifications of a failure to report abuse.

Call the police and the department of social services if you suspect child abuse. In addition to the legal obligation to report suspected child abuse, there is a moral obligation to do so. The events involving Jerry Sandusky, Penn State, and The Second Mile illustrate exactly why these reporting laws are in place. Children need the protection of responsible adults.