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 AVERT.org, 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 AVERT.org 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