Colorado teachers, principals, school counselors, and other school staff could eventually get more clarity on their legal responsibility to report child abuse and neglect.
A new group of experts, the Mandatory Reporting Task Force, launched this month to consider ways to improve reporting of child abuse and neglect in Colorado. Current reporting rules, which apply to employees in about 40 professions, are often vague and contribute to a disproportionate number of reports targeting families of color. The group’s final report is due in January 2025.
The new task force came out of a 2022 state law prompted partly by the case of Olivia Gant, a 7-year-old girl whose mother falsely portrayed her as being terminally ill.
Stephanie Villafuerte, Colorado’s child protection ombudsman, said another reason for the task force is continued confusion from mandated reporters about what they’re required to report, how quickly reports must be made, and how reporting protocols work in large organizations like school districts and hospitals.
During the group’s inaugural meeting last week, many of the more than 30 members talked of creating a child welfare system that’s friendlier to families, more transparent for mandated reporters, and more careful to avoid conflating poverty with abuse or neglect.
“There’s research nationally that would suggest that we are sweeping in way too many families for issues like poverty, for example,” she said. “There’s also concerns that not only are we sweeping in the wrong families, we’re not sweeping in the right families and those are the cases that you hear when someone should have made a mandated report, and they didn’t.”
Villafuerte said a state campaign promoting reporting of child abuse a decade ago may have inadvertently pushed educators and others to report families living in poverty. The slogan was “You pick up the phone. We make the call” — meaning if mandated reporters had any concerns about a child, they should call the child abuse hotline and let experts sort it out.
“What we’ve learned about that messaging is that good people — teachers — will say, ‘I had a child come to school several days in a row really hungry and not clean and I don’t know who else to call. I’m going to call the child abuse hotline,’” she said.
In such situations, the problem may have nothing to do with abuse, but rather a family’s need for food or housing help, she said. But being reported, even if parents are ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, creates a lingering sense of fear and trauma.
Several task force members said mandated reporters need more ways to support caregivers who are struggling. Others said the final recommendations must also acknowledge the limits of what certain mandated reporters can do to help families.
“Some mandatory [reporters] are in a great position to provide supports, and others like our educators, that’s not their primary job,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “Let’s be clear what we’re asking folks to do and what their skill set is.”
Murphy also noted that in education settings, abuse allegations may focus not on parents, but rather employees or even other students.
Dawn Alexander, who heads an advocacy group for private child care providers, the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, said clear rules for mandatory reporters are critical because reports can set off secondary consequences.
She gave the example of a young child left alone on the playground for one minute after the rest of the group had returned to the classroom. Even if the child was immediately retrieved and no harm came of it, a report could trigger separate actions by the state’s early childhood department, she said.
“It could potentially result in monthly visits and probation and all kinds of additional issues that don’t center around that claim of abuse and neglect,” she said. The report “is the door that opens to all those other systemic consequences.”
Other task force members said the law should be rewritten so mandated reporters don’t end up in legal trouble because they didn’t understand the rules.
Villafuerte said Colorado schools must provide training to mandatory reporters, but there are no uniform standards and the content varies widely by district.
Jessica Dotter, sexual assault resource prosecutor with the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, said she hopes the task force will bring about a law change that “results in no mandatory reporter ever landing on a DA’s desk again for failure to report because it’s so clear what the duty is.”
“In my experience, mandatory reporters are … hardly ever nefariously failing to report,” she said. “It’s a mistake. It’s a lack of training. It’s a lack of understanding.”
Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org.