Wednesday, March 28, 2007

KY state law requires all citizens to report suspected child abuse or neglect

Reporting child abuse is everyone's duty
Shelburne, Lori. Lexington Herald-Leader, March 26, 2007, pg. A10.

At issue: March 18 Herald-Leader article by Cassondra Kirby, "Michaela's '10 years of hell'; happiness was fleeting amid turbulent home life"

All who have read the story of the tragic death of 10-year-old Michaela Watkins have been sickened. We ask ourselves how anyone could so cruelly abuse a helpless child and how this little girl could have been so invisible.By her tragic life and death, this child is a shameful reminder of the depravity of some among us and the need for the rest of us to understand our obligation to help protect all children, not just our own, from abuse and neglect.

Sunday's Herald-Leader article did a good job educating the public about how a private citizen can report suspected child abuse or neglect. I urge the paper to reprint that information in all follow-up articles about this case.

Not mentioned in the paper's summary was the fact that the legal duty to report suspected child abuse and neglect is mandatory and applies to every private citizen, not just to teachers and social workers.

The system (commonly thought of as police, social services and the courts) cannot protect at-risk children unless someone reports the suspected abuse or neglect.

Professionals -- such as teachers, social workers and doctors -- who have frequent contact with children usually receive specific training about their legal obligation to report suspected abuse and neglect to the proper authorities.

What many of us may not realize, however, is that state law requires "any person who knows or has reasonable cause to believe" that a child or dependent is neglected or abused to immediately report the suspected abuse or neglect to local law enforcement, state police, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the commonwealth's attorney or the county attorney.

The statute uses the word shall to define the duty to report. The report can be made anonymously and with a phone call, but the duty to report is mandatory. Intentional violation of this reporting requirement is a criminal offense punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

In contrast, anyone who in good faith reports suspected child abuse or neglect is immune from civil and criminal liability.

Based on the Herald-Leader's articles, it appears in the case of Michaela that several neighbors and family members may have suspected or even known about abuse. It is unclear how many of those individuals actually reported their suspicions.

Presumably a thorough investigation is under way by local and state law enforcement surrounding the brutal death of this child, and we all hope justice will be served.

In the meantime, this case should serve as a reminder of the potentially horrific consequences of turning a blind eye to suspected child abuse and neglect.

We are each an integral part of the system.

-Lori Shelburne of Lexington is chairwoman of the Fayette County Bar Association's Family Law Section.

Caption: Michaela Watkins, 10, was found dead at her Winchester home on March 11. Her father and stepmother have been charged with murder.


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