Bethel teacher who didn't report child abuse at home did not break reporting law, court says

A Pierce County teacher did not violate the state's mandatory reporting law when she didn't report allegations that her own children had been abused in her home, the Washington State Supreme Court said Thursday.

The Bethel School District middle school teacher was charged in 2015, after she did not report allegations that her then-partner had inappropriately touched her daughters.

She argued that she didn't learn of the alleged abuse in her role as a teacher, and then-Superior Court Judge Brian Tollefson dismissed the charges.

Prosecutors appealed, and last year the state Court of Appeals overturned Tollefson's decision, ruling that teachers and other professionals must report child abuse, even if they learn of it outside work.

The teacher asked the state's high court to review the case, which decided 8-1 that Tollefson had it right.

"The alleged child abuse occurred in her home, and was perpetrated by another family member, with no connection to her professional identity as a teacher," Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote for the majority. "The mandatory reporting law does not impose an unlimited, ever present duty because it refers to people by means of their occupation, not simply as adults or persons.”

Fairhurst also noted: "Prosecuting the mother of abused children for failure to report may or may not be the best way to advance child welfare. We need not decide such an important public policy decision because it is not a judicial function."

Justice Steven Gonzalez took issue with that in his dissent.

"This statement misses the point," he wrote. "The present case concerns only a teacher's obligation to notify proper authorities when they learn about child abuse. The fact that it involves a mother is a distraction ... ."

A teacher's mandatory reporting duty does not end with the school day, Gonzalez argued.

The News Tribune is not naming the Bethel teacher or her school, to keep from identifying her children. She is still listed in the district's staff directory.

Her daughters told investigators they had told their mother about their stepfather's inappropriate touching, but it was a pastor one of the girls spoke with who reported the alleged abuse to authorities, according to court records.

Ultimately, the stepfather pleaded guilty to first-degree child molestation and two counts of second-degree child molestation in 2016.

The teacher argued that she didn't have reasonable cause to believe her daughters were being abused, and that she acted appropriately as a mother.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell