As a doctor, Elizabeth Steiner Hayward worries about her responsibilities as a mandatory reporter.
Say a 17-year-old comes into her office and asks, “Doctor, my boyfriend and I have been together for a year and a half, we’re thinking about having sex, can we please talk about how we stay safe?”
Since Steiner Hayward is mandated by the state to report potential child abuse, “I (would) have to call child welfare. Every, single, time,” she said, addressing the Oregon Legislature.
Read the original: Mandatory reporters question responsibilities
Steiner Hayward is among the tens of thousands of mandatory reporters thrown into indecision by one school district’s interpretation of the law.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools and the Marion County District Attorney’s Office assert all mandatory reporters have to file a report with law enforcement or the Department of Human Services if they suspect or know of any sexual activity — from kissing to intercourse — involving a child under the age of 18.
This applies even if the individuals involved are within three years of each other and the activity appears consensual, meaning there is no sign of force, coercion or intimidation. It also applies to the children of mandatory reporters.
Steiner Hayward, also a state senator from Beaverton, called on lawmakers in February to fix the interpretation, which she said, “should never have been made.”
“This is super simple folks,” she said, addressing the Oregon Senate. “If we don’t fix it, we’re gonna have a world of hurt and child welfare won’t be able to focus on the kids who are really in danger.”
“At this time, there won’t be any change to our reporting guidance,” said Lillian Govus, a spokeswoman for Salem-Keizer Public Schools.
Read the backstory: Salem-Keizer staff told to report student sexual activity, including own kids
“We’ll continue to lean in on tough conversations and support open communications,” she said. “Reporting isn’t a barrier, it’s a safety net for our children.”
Some school districts, including Medford and Ashland, have followed suit, adopting Salem-Keizer’s interpretation as a precaution.
But other mandatory reporters are left questioning.
Left in limbo
There are more than 30 professions on the list of mandatory reporters in Oregon, including attorneys, psychologists, school staff, coaches, members of the clergy, legislators, dentists and pharmacists.
And they all play a significant role in addressing child abuse.
In 2016, more than 76,600 reports of child abuse were made, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services, an increase of almost 10 percent from the prior year.
About 77 percent of the reports came from mandatory reporters.
Broken down by profession, police made about 17 percent of all reports; school staff made 20 percent; medical professionals made about 10 percent; about 6 percent of reports came from parents.
More than 7,670 of the completed investigations were founded for abuse or neglect, involving 11,843 victims.
Courtni Dresser, director of government relations for the Oregon Medical Association, doesn’t foresee this changing their practices.
In a comment sent to the Statesman Journal, Dresser said, “In our view, the legislation … was about access to social and medical services, not about limiting the reporting authority or requirements when any signs of concerning activity of sexual, physical or mental abuse are evident.”
Dresser said physicians and other healthcare providers rely on guidelines developed by the Oregon Health Authority, which provide discretion to determine whether the sexual contact is truly consensual and within the three-year age range understood as the Romeo and Juliet law.
These guidelines also help identify whether other factors, including violence, coercion, or drug use, necessitate a report, she said.
But the association was clear this shouldn’t impede physicians’ abilities to talk with patients about things like sex education.
“It is imperative that adolescents in need of contraceptive services and vital reproductive health education seek care from their healthcare provider and that when no signs of abuse exist, consensual sexual activity is treated appropriately,” Dresser said.
“The patient-physician relationship is the keystone to providing quality care.”
Department of Human Services officials haven’t offered much clarity, saying they do not expect mandatory reporters to follow Salem-Keizer’s interpretation, but they don’t discourage it either.
“Our role is to receive and respond to reports of suspected abuse,” department officials told the Statesman Journal in a comment. “DHS wants to be very careful to not say anything that would discourage people from reporting suspected abuse.”
But mandatory reporters need an answer — and fast. If they fail to report, even if it’s due to a lack of understanding of the requirements, they’ll face the consequences.
If a mandatory reporter fails to report, it’s considered a Class A violation, warranting a write-up and maximum fine of $2,000.
If the reporter is a public official, they face misdemeanor charges for the failure to perform their duties, said Amber Hollister, general counsel for the Oregon State Bar.
And if an attorney faces criminal charges involved with not reporting, the consequences range up to disbarment, depending on the crime, she said.
In many other states, Hollister said, it’s a misdemeanor not to report. But all 50 states have different categories of who is considered a mandatory reporter.
And federal laws only outline the minimum standards for defining child abuse and neglect for states that accept federal funding.