OLYMPIA – Teachers in Washington are supposed to tell authorities when they believe a student has suffered abuse or neglect, but the state’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday the requirement doesn’t necessarily apply when a teacher’s own child is the victim.
In an 8-1 ruling, the court dismissed a Pierce County case against a teacher who failed to immediately report that her daughters told her their stepfather had molested them.
State law requires certain professionals, including teachers, nurses and police, to make reports when they have reasonable cause to believe a child has been abused.
The court said the law requires some connection between the occupation and the suspicion of abuse, and because of that justices ruled the teacher was not obligated to report the suspected abuse in her own home. The stepfather pleaded guilty to molestation and was sentenced to at least 11 years.
“The mandatory reporting law does not impose an unlimited, ever present duty because it refers to people by means of their occupation, not simply as adults or persons,” Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote.
The lone dissenter, Justice Steven Gonzalez said the duty to report “does not end when school lets out.”
He argued that it would be contrary to the law “for a teacher to be vigilant with a stranger’s children, but turn a blind eye to her own children’s abuse.”
Law enforcement was made aware of the allegations after one of the daughters told her pastor. During the investigation it was revealed that the girl’s mother had been told four months earlier.
Barbara Corey, the teacher’s attorney, said her client took the allegations seriously, but that because the initial allegations were ambiguous or recanted, she wanted to have further conversations with her daughters. The stepfather ultimately moved out and the daughters received counseling, Corey said.
“She was trying to protect her daughters,” she said. “They were foremost in her mind.”
The Associated Press does not name victims of sexual assault without consent and, to protect the daughters’ identities, is not identifying either their mother or former stepfather.
Corey said that the mandatory reporting statute “was in much need of clarification.” She noted that under the previous interpretation, parents who happen to be in the designated occupations would be put in the situation of potentially making a premature immediate complaint on an allegation in their home, even before they’ve had a chance to fully assess the situation.
She said the ruling makes no changes to current reporting requirements that apply for all adults when it comes to severe abuse, which is defined as physical or sexual abuse that causes “significant bleeding, deep bruising, or significant external or internal swelling.”
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he agreed with the sentiments of Gonzalez’s dissent. “The legislature intended to protect children and that is our intent, as well,” he said in a statement.
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