The Role of Mandated Reporters in Virtual Youth Programming

Sandy Weaver, MS
May 2020
Child waving to monitor screen

Protecting children is everyone’s responsibility. Anyone who has a reasonable cause to suspect that a child is being abused must report that suspicion. This even includes when we are interacting with children in an online/virtual world. Just because a youth program is no longer being delivered by an in-person modality, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be situations where an adult has reasonable suspicion of child abuse. Adults will still be interacting with children and children may disclose. Adults will still be able to visually see children and may notice physical signs of abuse. Adults will still be able to witness verbal behaviors that may be related to abuse or neglect.

"Clearly, teaching in a virtual environment changes the rules to some degree without removing the responsibility of being a mandated reporter," says Steve Mandell, prevention education manager at Darkness to Light, an organization working to empower adults to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse through awareness, education, and stigma reduction (S. Mandell, personal communication, April 23, 2020).

"Most kids are sexually abused by someone they know, and now children are at home. People need to be observed, and when something’s not right, it needs to be interrupted," Mandell says.

Some experts in the field of child abuse and neglect fear that there could be a rise in the number of incidents of child abuse and neglect due to the related stress that is caused by the COVID19 pandemic. Jamye Coffman, MD, who serves as medical director of the Cook Children’s Center for Prevention and Child Abuse and Neglect, says, "It all just adds stress on top of stress. Any time there’s increased stress increases the risk of abuse on children" (Santhanam, 2020).

Additionally, parents may perceive a greater potential for abuse to occur through online program delivery. Amy Lang, MA, sexual health education expert and counselor, says, "I think the online format will make parents feel more vulnerable" (A. Lang, personal communication, April 23, 2020).

However, other trends are showing a decrease in the number of reports of suspected child abuse and neglect (Campbell, 2020). The thought behind this statistic is that children are no longer in schools or participating in extracurricular activities. This limits the opportunity for detection of abuse and neglect by other adults who are interacting with children outside of the home setting where the abuse may be occurring.

What this means for those of us who are going down the path of delivering youth programs through a virtual/online format is that we must continue to be diligent and remember our responsibilities in reporting suspected child abuse. Even though it may be a little more challenging to recognize the signs of the different forms of child abuse via an online interaction, the red flags of suspicion may still be raised.

All US states and territories have laws in place that identify who and when someone must report suspected child abuse (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019). For example, in the State of Pennsylvania, mandated reporters are required to make a report of suspected child abuse if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse under any of the following circumstances (Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, n.d.):

  • They come into contact with the child in the course of employment, occupation, and practice of a profession or through a regularly scheduled program, activity, or service.
  • They are directly responsible for the care, supervision, guidance, or training of the child, or are affiliated with an agency, institution, organization, school, regularly established church, or religious organization or other entity that is directly responsible for the care, supervision, guidance, or training of the child.
  • A person makes a specific disclosure to the mandated reporter that an identifiable child is the victim of child abuse.
  • An individual 14 years of age or older makes a specific disclosure to the mandated reporter that the individual has committed child abuse.

Note that none of the conditions differentiate how the contact disclosure occurs (i.e., in person or virtual). Therefore, it is important to refresh our memories of the signs and symptoms for and the risk factors of abuse and neglect (Smith, Robinson, & Segal, 2019). Reacquaint yourselves with the specific reporting guidelines for your state. Also, be aware that because programs are delivered virtually, you may need to report suspected abuse and neglect to a state other than the one in which you reside. Instead, you may be required to report into the state where the abuse occurred. 

Lang says, "Reporting is a gut check. If a seventh grader says something about their boyfriend, and a counselor is astute and asks about that boyfriend, and the child says, ‘Oh, he’s in ninth grade,’ that’s reportable. If a child says, ‘I’m super hungry and I didn’t get dinner last night or breakfast this morning,’ that’s reportable. Always err on the side of caution."

Remember, it is not our job to know for sure if abuse has occurred. If we suspect it, we report and let those professionals whose job it is to investigate make the final determination. 

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Sandy Weaver, MS, is the youth program compliance specialist at Penn State University. Her position is in the Office of Ethics and Compliance, and she is responsible for coordinating compliance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law and university policies that impact employees, volunteers, and minors who participate in a variety of university youth programs across the Commonwealth. She can be reached at stw126@psu.edu.