Your ‘Mandated Reporter’ Obligations

If your job as an educator brings you into direct contact with students under the age of 18, you are a “mandated reporter” for purposes of the Massachusetts child abuse and neglect law. The statute is General Law Chapter 119, section 51A. That section of the law gives a name to the report – a “51A” – that must be filed when abuse or neglect is suspected.  

What exactly is your reporting obligation? Here is what the law (in part) states:

A mandated reporter who, in his professional capacity, has reasonable cause to believe that a child is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from: (i) abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child's health or welfare, including sexual abuse; (ii) neglect, including malnutrition; (iii) physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth, shall immediately communicate with the department orally and, within 48 hours, shall file a written report with the department detailing the suspected abuse or neglect.

You can click here to read the entire section.

As a lawyer, I read this provision and immediately have questions:

  • When is one’s belief that abuse or neglect has occurred reasonable?
  • What if I learn of a student’s injury outside my professional capacity
  • How much of my own independent professional judgment should I use?
  • What is a risk of harm, and when it is substantial?
  • What is neglect? Would I know it if I saw it?
  • What if I am wrong in my belief that abuse or neglect occurred, or hasn’t occurred?

The circumstances that students present are endless in their variety. While teachers learn about their reporting obligations as part of their professional training (the MTA often provides training and advice in this area), the question of whether to file a 51A can be vexing indeed.

If you are uncertain about whether to make a report, the law provides a simple solution:

If a mandated reporter is a member of the staff of a … public … institution, school or facility, the mandated reporter may instead notify the person or designated agent in charge of such institution, school or facility who shall become responsible for notifying the department in the manner required by this section.

The Legal Division recently learned that some investigators from the Department of Children and Families may be telling attendees at workshops and presentations that, even if you report your belief about possible abuse or neglect to your supervisor or administrator, you must still report your concern to DCF if you learn that the supervisor or administrator has failed to act.

However, there is no such requirement in the statute or in DCF’s regulations.

In fact, DCF’s own online materials support our view. The department’s Mandated Reporter Guide states, “Mandated Reporters … must either notify the Department directly or notify the person in charge of the institution, school or facility … who then becomes responsible for filing the report.”

It is our view that, once you have reported appropriately within the chain of command at the school, you have fully discharged your reporting obligation. Keep a record of your report.

What if you think your supervisor is wrong in deciding not to file? You may choose to file on your own and you are fully protected by law in doing so.

Here’s something you should know: If you are the target of a 51A report and if you are an MTA member, the division will provide you with a lawyer immediately. MTA lawyers have represented hundreds of MTA members in 51A cases, and the vast majority of the allegations are found to be unsubstantiated or overturned. This leads us to question whether over-reporting is occurring. But that is a policy matter for the Legislature.

One thing is for certain: Teaching is one tough profession.