Friday, April 9, 2010

State Mandated Reporting for Educators

This blog comes from some recent confusion in my everyday work life as a mental health professional working within the public school system. Working with children (in this blog, any person under the age of 18) is no easy task, especially when you work in an environment (like a school) where rumors are flying around every hour of every day, where children tell you things about other children and their families, and where children willingly tell you about the happenings in their lives they don’t or feel they can’t tell their parents. As educators, by law, we are considered individuals who are mandated to report to child welfare services if we have any reason to suspect that a child is being physically or sexually abused or neglected. This is partly where my confusion started. The reporting of suspected physical abuse or neglect, to me, is a very clear, cut and dry process. However, when it comes to sexual abuse, due to the language of the laws, this is where the confusion sets in. While this might not seem like a confusing issue to some, for me, it is a topic that I often ponder. And, because I, myself, have never been formally educated on the subject, the confusion is even greater. Sure, if a 30 year old person was sexually abusing a ten year old, no problem, report as soon as you suspect. But what happens when you are aware that an 18 year old is having sex with a 15 year old? What are the laws regarding that? What about when two 14 year olds are having sex? What if two 12 year olds are sexually touching, but no intercourse has actually happened? Does it make a difference if they are same-sex couples? These are just a few of the questions that have been brought to my attention recently. Because I am currently a mental health professional, my office is run with a confidentiality agreement. The children I see know that what they say in my office stays in my office, with three exceptions: 1) they are causing harm to themselves; 2) they are causing harm to another; 3) someone else is causing harm to them. This is where state mandating steps in. However, do to consent laws, when it comes to sex, what are we required to report and what can we consider a privacy issue?

To start researching this, I looked up what sexual abuse and exploitation was defined as in the state of Pennsylvania. According to Pennsylvania state law, “The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of a child to engage in, or assist another individual to engage in, sexually explicit conduct. The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of a child to engage in, or assist another individual to engage in, simulation of sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction, including photographing, videotaping, computer depicting, and filming.” (Child Welfare Information Gateway). This makes the issue at hand a little clearer. If any person (including another child) persuades, entices, coerces, or induces another child into any sexual act, it must be reported. This is pretty clear, in my eyes. What is not clear is what to do when it is reported to you that children are consensually being sexually active together. To research a little further into this, I looked up the sexual consent ages in Pennsylvania. According to, in Pennsylvania it is illegal to have sex if you are under the age of 16. And this is the case for both same-sex and different-sex sexual acts. These ages of consent are different for all states, and gives a comprehensive look at the consent laws of all the states in the United States, as well as many countries within the world. So, for example, technically, in Pennsylvania, if two 15 year olds are having sex together, they cannot legally consent to have sex, even if they both want to. So what does that mean for us if we are aware that it is happening? For that, I have not been able to come up with a clear answer. To me, at that age, I would think of it as a privacy issue and not a state mandated reporting issue, however, the law might prove me wrong.

This is where I think it would be especially important, in our line of work, to go over the laws of state mandated reporting for sexual abuse during our coursework. While I am learning how to be an educator, I also need to learn my responsibilities as a state mandated reporter of child abuse because I am an educator. While I might not agree with all the laws, I need to abide by them so I can continue to educate children and help those who need it. While I know I haven’t even answered all of my own questions, I am more aware of the fact that I need to look into this further if a situation arises where I am not sure what to do. Different agencies, school systems, and organizations may have different policies regarding reporting sexual abuse, so be sure to look over the policies of the places that employ you. I think it is very important to keep this issue in mind when working with children. Not only do you need to look out for their best interest, but you need to look out for yours as well, so that you can continue to look out for theirs.

Here are some additional resources to help with laws regarding state mandated reporting:

Child abuse reporting requirements in Pennsylvania

Online Resources for State Child Welfare Law and Policy

Teens, Sex, and the Law


  1. Thank you for the information, Allison! I agree that educators need to be aware of the laws in their state and should educate their students on them as well. What concerns me is the students' reactions to this information. For some students school counselors, teachers, nurses and other professionals are the only ones they can turn to for personal advice. If the threat that they night be "told on" is present, perhaps they will keep their questioning to a minimum. In this case, where will they turn?

    Sure there are some great websites for adolescents such as, but is researching sex questions the same as asking an experienced, educated adult? No. So, why threaten both the educator and the student with these laws? Through silence, should we just pretend that children under the age of 16 are not sexually active? In my opinion, absolutely not. And it frustrates me that if a student came to me for advice on their sexual activity, I would be required to take that information and report it. I suppose the law is the law, but I will openly admit, I disagree with it.

  2. This is definitely a topic to be fleshed out as it has implications for both the children involved and the educators helping. I was recently talking to colleagues, and this very subject came up! How do you negotiate the welfare of children when a 17 year old boyfriend comes into a pharmacy to purchase Plan B for his 14 year old girlfriend, or comes to one of us for advice about it? What actions can we take to ensure the safety of all parties?

  3. I am afraid I am confused by the reading of the law as described in this blog. I am working on this topic for HSED 751 - Chronic Illness & Disability in HS. We are creating a policy paper for a residential treatment program for adolescents who have drug/alcohol addiction. We have to write policies regarding the reporting and treatment of NON consensual sex, so we are first being clear on what is consensual.

    According to Title 18 (Crimes and Offenses) of the Pennsylvania statutes, persons between the ages of 13 and 16 may have sexual intercourse with persons between the ages of 13 and 17, and vice versa. The "complaintant" must be at least 13 years old and the "actor" must not be more than four years older than the complaintant. Persons who are at least 16 years of age have reached the age of consent.

    This is NOT the same age for statutory sexual assault or rape. Maybe that is where the confusion lies.

    In the scenario presented, it is legal for those two 15 year olds to have sexual intercourse.

    There are many professional challenges in the scenario you described Allison. The one that I am feeling most strongly about is the lack of training by your employer. In my world of a private, non-profit I have created policies on safety and prevention is key. This means training and educating all the adults and the teens on the protocols.

    If you have any power to advocate for yourself and your colleagues I would suggest putting in a request for some training.


  4. This blog certainly reminds us that there are many unclear areas when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse. Educators should consult with their district on policies of reporting. While educators are mandatory reporters, the process of who reports from district to district; and in some cases school to school within the district, vary slightly. There can also be variations in each state. When I was employed at a middle school, teachers, guidance counselors and the school nurse reported concerns to the assistant principal, who then made the call to Children and Youth. When I was employed at a Family Planning Clinic, it was legal for a 13 year old to have sex with someone who was not greater than five years older. The person also could not living with the person as their caretaker. These rules always seemed tricky to me, so I had legal consult with Maternal and Family Health Services if necessary. Error on the side of caution if you suspect any wrongdoing.


  5. Thank you for posting this blog. This is a conversation that came up just the other day in my class. The students were doing a presentation on sexting and about the dangers associated when you are dating someone who is younger than you. They were completely baffled that you could be convicted and put on the sex offenders list for sexting. It is a difficult situation for college students who have high school partners. Some of the freshmen in college are dating juniors or seniors in high school which would mean that they are 18/19 dating those who are 16/17/18. It is a difficult conversation to have with students.

  6. This is also a question I wonder about with the "sexual-self analysis" papers that we have completed (and that many of us assign) in our classes. If a student reports a sexual assault that occurred on campus, what are my responsibilities (both legally and ethically) to that student and the larger university community. Conversely, what if a student reported committing a sexual assault?

  7. This age of consent conversation is very interesting when compared to some of the information given at the HSEDSO medical panel during alumni weekend. One of the panelists was explaining how school nurses are now required to ask children as young as 8 years old about their sexual history. So 8 year olds are legally not allowed to be having sex but school nurses are asking them if they are???

    This seems to be another area where the laws have not caught up or do not have a way of dealing with the current societal situation. The legal age of consent may be 16 but that does not reflect the actual age children are now starting to engage in sexual activity at. Danielle mentioned sexting which seems to be the same type of phenomena. When the laws for child pornography were written children did not have the technology they have today so issues like sexting were not even considered when drafting the laws. In addition, there are several outdated laws related to sexuality still on the books that are never enforced, for example it is illegal in Florida for unmarried men and women to cohabitate together under law 798.02.

    If you are interested in the legal aspects of this conversation here is a link from the Library of Congress that explains the legislative process:

    I think it is important to understand the legislative process because it is important to so many aspects of human sexuality (e.g. same-sex marriage, pornography, abortion and education), not just abuse. If you are really interested in the legal aspects of sexuality I would also recommend taking Sex and the Law with Dr. Hall. I took it last summer and it addressed many of these same questions that are being raised in the blog…it is being offered again this summer!


  8. First, thanks Allison for posting on this topic. This issue has come up every year in at least one class since I've been in the master's program. It seems like the guidelines are different each year (the guidelines were changed - either wording added or changed - in February). I'm fortunate that Planned Parenthood takes this issue very seriously, and therefore each person (medical staff and educators) who comes in contact with patients, clients or students has access to a child abuse protocol "handbook" - which is constantly updated.

    I have a handout that has example questions and with answers for different scenarios. I will post it to shared files on campus cruiser in case any of you are interested.

    Here's a handy reference list which I use during counseling:

    Reportable Incident Quick Reference

    Ages 16-17:
    All physical abuse and nonconsensual sexual conduct including intercourse

    Ages 13-15:
    All physical abuse, NONCONSENSUAL conduct including intercourse and CONSENSUAL deviate sexual intercourse only when partner is 4 or more years older— (ie, not vaginal penetration with a partner that is 4 or more years older than the patient.)
    sexual deviate intercourse: sexual activity such as oral, anal and other sexual conduct - not including vaginal intercourse.

    12 & Under:
    All physical abuse and all sexual conduct including intercourse; consensual and non-consensual

    Non-Reportable Incident Quick Reference

    Ages 13-17:
    Sexual intercourse (genital penetration) regardless of partner age.

    Statutory Sexual Assault: Sexual intercourse (genital penetration) with a complainant 13 to 15 years old and that partner is four or more years older than the complainant and the complainant and the person are not married to each other.

    - Erin