Teachers and other professionals must report child abuse, even if they learn about it in a setting outside of work, including their own homes, the Washington State Court of Appeals said Tuesday.
The court ruled in the case of a Bethel School District middle school teacher who was charged in 2015 with failing to report that her husband had inappropriately touched her daughters.
Since-retired Pierce County Superior Court Judge Brian Tollefson dismissed the charges after the teacher argued she didn’t learn of the abuse allegations in the course of her employment.
Prosecutors appealed that decision.
In her appeal, the teacher contended there wasn’t a basis for allegations of “severe abuse,” the standard for what parents must report.
Teachers and certain other professionals, such as police officers and nurses, must report more than just “severe abuse.” They have to report when they have “reasonable cause” to suspect child abuse or neglect.
The Bethel teacher argued that, in her own home, she could be held only to the parental standard, not the one for educators.
The teacher also contended she didn’t have reasonable cause to suspect the abuse, even if the stricter reporting requirements do apply in her home.
The opinion from Division Two of the State Court of Appeals overturned Tollefson’s decision and said the teacher must meet the higher standard
“Because of the status of teachers or other mandatory reporters in the community, a child might go to them outside of their work to report abuse,” said Judge Bradley Maxa, writing for the unanimous court.
“And the obvious goal of the mandatory reporting statute is to prevent child abuse. Holding teachers to a higher standard would help stop instances of child abuse that otherwise might not be reported.”
It’s a harsh requirement to mandate that teachers report suspected child abuse in all circumstances, Maxa acknowledged, but he said the court can’t rewrite statutes, even when they seem “unduly harsh.”
Not limiting an educator’s reporting duty to work, he wrote, “means that a teacher can be subject to prosecution for failing to report suspected child abuse based on information obtained at home, on vacation, or anywhere else.”
The News Tribune is not naming the Bethel teacher or her school, to protect the identities of the children. A school district spokeswoman said Tuesday the teacher still is listed in the staff directory.
According to the original charging papers, a youth pastor reported the alleged abuse of the girls to authorities.
Prosecutors said the girls told investigators they had told their mother about inappropriate touching by their stepfather. He pleaded guilty last year to first-degree child molestation and two counts of second-degree child molestation.
The appellate court sent the case against the mother back to Superior Court, and the Prosecutor’s Office said Tuesday it intends to go forward with it.
She has 30 days from the appellate decision to decide whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.
“She’s got a teacher reporting requirement; she’s got a parent reporting requirement,” her attorney, Barbara Corey, said Tuesday. “There’s a conflict really as to which reporting requirement applies. … That really is an issue probably that the Supreme Court should decide.”