Monday, January 16, 2012

Child abuse: What happens when the "mandated reporter" is - a reporter?

Amid all of the calls to turn anyone and everyone into a “mandated reporter” of anything and everything that might conceivably be considered “child abuse” there is one thing that the reporters writing news stories about these bills and, especially, the editorial writers endorsing them may not have considered:

What happens when the mandated reporter is – a reporter?

It didn’t occur to me either, until Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed an executive order turning every employee of the University of Wisconsin System into a "mandated reporter" of child abuse.

My first full-time job after journalism school, nearly 35 years ago, was with Wisconsin Public Radio.  That made me an employee of the University of Wisconsin System.  The same is true for reporters at WUWM – the call letters stand for University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  There’s nothing particularly unusual about this. Around the country many public radio and television stations are run by colleges and universities.

            “Child abuse” means far more than, say, seeing an adult rape a child in a shower, one of the allegations in the case against former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky.  Under Wisconsin law, for example, mandated reporters must report when they have “reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been abused or neglected.”  Wisconsin defines neglect as “failure, refusal, or inability on the part of a caregiver, for reasons other than poverty, to provide necessary care, food, clothing, medical or dental care, or shelter so as to seriously endanger the physical health of the child.”

So what happens now, if say a Wisconsin Public Radio or WUWM reporter is doing a story about families living in poverty? A single mother, speaking on condition that her name not be used, says things sometimes get so desperate that when the sitter doesn't show she has to leave her seven-year-old home alone to go to work, or she'll be fired.

Is the reporter supposed to shut off his or her tape recorder and say: "Excuse me, as an employee of the University of Wisconsin System, I’m not sure if you’re poor enough to fit the exception in the statutory definition, so my promise to you of confidentiality is null and void.  I am now required to call the child abuse hotline and turn you in"? 

It's unlikely, but it really could happen.  Twenty-five years ago, during my first months at the Albany Times Union, I covered this story about two families living in dangerous housing.

Given the conditions in the building, one could make a case that any mandatory reporter was required to call in this family.  Instead, when my editors put the story on the front page of the metro section on Thanksgiving Day, with a big photo, that got the families moved - but it took about three weeks. 

Technically, journalists already might face this issue in the 18 states in which everyone is a mandated reporter. I doubt that any actually has turned in a family due to the law.  But I think it's a problem of a different order of magnitude when a particular group that includes journalists is singled out as a category of reporter, and the governor is making a big deal about it at a time when mandated reporting is on everybody’s mind.

It’s hard enough to get news organizations to cover issues of poverty as it is.  (One reason I remember the Albany story after so many years is that it prompted by first argument with the worst editor I've ever encountered - she wanted me to drop the story and cover some political trivia instead.)  Impoverished families would have every reason to shy away from telling their stories if they knew that a mandated reporter law trumped any promise of confidentiality.  And journalists might become even more reluctant to report on the problems of poverty if it could pose this kind of dilemma.

It’s something editorial writers might want to think about before jumping on the make-everyone-a-mandated-reporter bandwagon.  Because none of the proposals says “except journalists.”