Child Abuse Reporting: Advocacy vs. Interference
Author(s): Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
January 1, 2009
Q: I reported an abuse of one of my students to both law enforcement and the Department of Human Services. However, once the police became involved and came to the school for questioning, I was told I was not to speak to the student (only if she came to me and even then, I could not discuss the case). In other settings I have always been able to ask students if they would like me in the room while they are being questioned. I obviously don’t speak for students, and I would never have asked leading questions that could jeopardize the investigation. I want to be an advocate for my students. Where is the line between advocacy and interference?
A. School counselors are aware of the duty to report suspected child abuse. It is also understood that it is inappropriate for the school counselor to act as an investigator of the abuse. Reporting the suspicion of abuse is the directive. It is also clear that school counselors must use caution when asking the student questions to discern whether the information merits a child abuse report or not. Probing questions can negatively influence a report. To maintain the highest level of ethics and professionalism, school counselors attend many workshops and trainings regarding the identification and reporting procedures for abuse. What remains unclear is the role of the school counselor in the aftermath of those reports.
What do we do to advocate for the students once a report has been filed and the control has been taken out of our hands? Professional school counselors take our “vow” of advocacy for the students seriously, especially when it comes to reporting abuse and protecting the students. It is often school counselors who hear the first account of the abuse due to the trusting relationships they’ve developed with students. To fulfill their legal duty to report, school counselors must then shift roles to become an informant. While the need for reporting is understood, it seems to be a paradox in roles after creating a safe and caring environment for the student to now be obligated to break that trust.
As mentioned in the above scenario, the school counselor may not hear the results of the child abuse investigation or may be directed not to discuss the case any further with the child, even though the school counselor’s involvement is apparent. School counselors want to be in compliance with the law; however, distancing from a student after he/she has been vulnerable to us seems counterintuitive to how we’ve been trained.
In their article, “Reporting Suspected Child Abuse: Conflicting Roles for the Counselor,” Ted Remley and Lincoln Fry wrote, “School counselors may see themselves as being victimized by the child abuse reporting process. Cast in the role of accuser, informer and watchdog, the school counselor also may be the only person available to deliver services to the various parties involved in the abuse, including the victim, the non-offending parent and the perpetrator.”
There seems to be many unanswered questions about the aftermath of reporting abuse. For our role as school counselors and mandated reporters, there are no guidelines written and certainly no training about post-reporting roles. Is it appropriate to sit in on the questioning of the child to serve as their support system? What kind of relationship is allowed between the school counselor and the child now that a report has been made?
The answers vary from state to state and from city to city. As a former practitioner, I too, have been frustrated by being in this nebulous position. I never could understand how the school counselor’s presence during an interview of a child abuse report could be a problem. Then my husband, a police detective who served in the victims unit, explained that when interviewing a potential victim, the officer is often thinking about how this report may end up in court. It is the officer’s job to make sure nothing will interfere with the possibility of punishing the perpetrator. If a school counselor is in the room during questioning of a child, the perpetrator’s defense attorney could try to point out how the child may have been coerced by the school counselor. The defense attorney may contend that the school counselor was allowed in the room during the investigation to keep the child from telling a different story. Thus the child’s testimony may be considered tainted by the school counselor’s very presence, even though the presence was intended as a support mechanism. Even talking with the student about the case after the report has been made can affect the case as the defense attorney cries interference or coercion.
We certainly want to advocate for our students in this time of crisis but don’t want to interfere with the case. My husband’s advice was, “If you truly want to be helpful, stay out of the investigation but document all that you were told by the child and by the investigators. Then if you are subpoenaed to testify you will be a far better witness. Your testimony will carry more weight if you haven’t been discussing the case with the student. Support from a cautious distance and help the child understand.” This wisdom has been helpful for me on those many occasions where that report was made and I felt compelled to protect the student.
Despite our exuberance to help in these most difficult situations, we are reminded in Section D of the ASCA Ethical Code for School Counselors, collaboration with agencies, organizations and individuals in the community is expected.
As for supporting the child after the report is made and the investigation has begun, it may be wise to work through the child’s case worker to offer support. Most professionals agree that a school counselor will need to continue to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the child if still in the same school. If the child is moved out of the home and out of the school, then any ongoing support and encouragement from the school counselor would best be done through the case worker to avoid any perception of impropriety.
Reporting child abuse is one of the most unfortunate realities of our job as school counselors. Advocating for our students is the prime directive, but working through and with the systems, whose mission is also the child’s safety, is another aspect of our professional expectations. However, for the child’s sake, the efforts for advocacy must not become an interference for justice.
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. Contact her for references to this article. Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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