Update to Joint Advisory regarding Mandated Reporting Responsibilities of School Personnel in Cases of Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect

On October 27, 2021, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) issued an updated joint advisory with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) concerning mandated reporting responsibilities for school personnel in cases of suspected child abuse and neglect.  The update replaces the previous advisory on the same topic issued in 2010.

The updated advisory summarizes the mandated reporting law and answers common questions regarding the law and responsibilities of mandatory reporters.  In addition to school personnel having a duty to report, school committees continue to have a duty to inform teachers, administrators, and other professional staff regarding their reporting duties.  The advisory is intended to assist school committees in meeting this obligation.

A link to the reporting form is included in the updated advisory, making it easy for mandatory reporters to find and submit the required information consistent with Section 51A.

The definitions of “abuse” and “neglect” have been updated:

  • Adding “victimization of a child through sexual exploitation and/or human trafficking, whether or not the person responsible is a caregiver” to the definition of “abuse.” And noting the location of the actions do not impact that definition.
  • In addition, the advisory makes clear that “neglect” cannot be solely due to a parent or caregiver’s “disability or limited physical condition.”
  • The updated reference to “sexual exploitation or human trafficking” was added to various sections of the advisory, making clear that mandatory reporters are responsible for reporting when this conduct is suspected.

Additional guidance regarding a school or district’s ongoing concerns and concerns for children already involved with DCF or the courts in included in the update:

  • Even if a reporter is aware that a child is involved with DCF or the court the reporter must still report any suspected abuse or neglect, even when the reporter has already notified the child’s social worker.
  • Only if the concerns do not rise to the level of a 51A requirement, can the reporter limit notification to the social worker.
  • The guidance goes on to indicate that if a school or district has ongoing concerns after speaking to the social worker the school or district may reach out to the DCF Area Office and speak with the Area Program Manager or Director. When necessary, a school or district may also speak to the DCF Office of Ombudsman or the Office of the Child Advocate Complaint Line if they do not believe DCF is being responsive.

The updated advisory modifies DESE/DCF’s response to questions regarding reports of student harassment, assault or abuse by another student.  Previously the advisory indicated the matter “should be reported to DCF” and police.  The updated advisory is more nuanced and indicates responses will vary based on allegations, applicable laws, regulations, and policies, advising reporters and schools to consult with school counsel.  If abuse is suspected of a student under eighteen the guidance does, however, advise it be reported.

The updated advisory also notes the need to report abuse or neglect of disabled persons aged eighteen and over to the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC).

While the advisory previously discouraged districts from notifying parents or guardians of a DCF interview at school if the child could be placed at risk of further abuse or neglect, the updated advisory directs districts to consult with counsel regarding these questions.

The update emphasizes that reports of suspected abuse by school employees must be reported “immediately.”

The updated advisory can be found here: https://www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/advisory/child-abuse.html

If you have any questions regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding labor and employment law generally, please contact one of the attorneys below.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.