Challenge raises questions about reporting child abuse

Friday, November 14, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Jill Geary Patterson keeps a picture of a smiling, seemingly carefree boy jumping on a trampoline with her at the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

The 7-year-old is a stark reminder about the wisdom of a state law requiring health-care workers and others who care for children to call authorities if they suspect abuse.

Two years earlier, the boy in the picture had been kicked repeatedly in the stomach, with a steel-toe boot, by his mother's boyfriend.

The child picked himself up from the bathroom floor, got dressed and walked to school with his sister. He suffered in silence as his belly filled with blood.

His kindergarten teacher finally alerted the nurse when he refused to play with friends at recess. The nurse noticed only a temperature and a swollen belly, but she picked up the telephone and called authorities.

The picture that Patterson cherishes was taken an hour after a jury recommended a 25-year prison sentence for the boy's abuser.

Missouri's mandated child abuse statute requires nurses, teachers and others to report to the state if they have "reasonable cause to suspect" a child is being abused. However, the legislation was declared unconstitutional in September.

Greene County Circuit Judge Calvin Holden ruled the 28-year-old law was vague and denied defendants due process.

Greene County Prosecutor Darrell Moore, who appealed Holden's ruling, said he believed those affected by the law still must make hot line calls until the Supreme Court acts.

"More importantly, the right thing to do in any case is for people to still comply with the spirit of the law," he said.

Kansas' attorney general, among others from across the country, has indicated he would file a "friend of the court" brief in support of Moore's appeal.

Many states have similar laws. The language also was used as a model for Missouri laws on older adult abuse, Moore said.

"To me, it's not hard to understand the reasonable cause to suspect," he said. "It would be your gut feeling that you look at something and something is not right."

Attorney Dee Wampler, who represented the nurse, feared the Brown case could lead to second-guessing of the way medical workers do their jobs and further overburden state child services with unnecessary calls.

"I think what the prosecutor wants basically is to deputize anyone who has anything to do with children and make them junior prosecutors, or junior accusers, so that hot line calls increase," he said.

State Rep. Mark Wright of Springfield said he would seek changes to the statute in the coming legislative session.

"I think we have some major, major problems with the way we run our system in Missouri," he said. "I think the law probably will be ruled unconstitutional, and we'll have to deal with the issue again."

Among other things, Wright sought to require mandated reporters to identify themselves to hot line workers. Callers would have remained anonymous unless it was shown they knowingly gave false information.

"These people legally have to be trained. They have to know what they're doing, and I thought it was reasonable to expect them to give their identity whenever they call," Wright said.

Patterson said it was important to remember that despite the legal challenges, the intention of the mandated reporter law is to help stop child abuse. She has begun working with a child abuse and neglect task force to provide monthly training for those affected by the law.

Patterson acknowledged some may not find the law to be user friendly. But she pointed to the 7-year-old boy in her picture and urged the group of mostly preschool workers attending a recent training session to rely on their gut -- and to call the hot line if there was any doubt.

"I encourage them not to do their own investigation because the system is set up to let a multidisciplinary team of professionals do an investigation and to ask questions to try to figure out what real answer is," Patterson said.

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