This year has been filled with disturbing revelations of trusted institutions failing to protect children across the country. The utter failure of mandatory reporters to follow their mandate is part and parcel of this year’s numerous sex abuse scandals. As a recent example, this week in San Jose, California, a jury convicted Lyn Vijayendran, the former principal of O.B. Whaley Elementary School, of failing to report child sexual abuse.
The charge against Vijayendran stemmed from a report by a second grader that a teacher, Craig Chandler, while alone in the classroom with her, blindfolded her, made her lie on the floor, and put a salty tasting liquid in her mouth. Vijayendren took Chandler’s word when he informed the principal that the incident was merely part of a lesson about Helen Keller. On Thursday, a judge sentenced Ms. Vijayendran to two years probation, $602 in fines, and 100 hours of community service. Vijayendran’s community service will include training other educators in the proper reporting of suspected child abuse.
Luckily, prosecutors have begun pushing back, utilizing state mandatory reporter laws to draw a line in the sand. In addition to Vijayendran’s conviction, this year also saw the convictions of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri for failing to report suspicion of child abuse and Monsignor Lynn of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was sentenced to 3-6 years in prison for felony child endangerment. While these prosecutions are an importoant step toward accountability and help raise awareness of the lack of reporting, one wonders why those on the front lines of child protection, such as educators, youth leaders, and clergy, are not fulfilling their mandate under state laws.
According to the National Child Protection Training Center, a 1990 study found that mandated reporters reported a mere 40% of maltreatment cases and only 35% of the most serious cases of abuse to the child protection system (CPS). In another survey, 197 teachers were presented with two hypothetical cases of abuse and asked whether or not they would report. In the first hypothetical, the teachers were asked if they would report if a student told them that a stepfather has been touching their genitals. In the second hypothetical, the teachers were asked whether or not they would report if a student told them that another teacher was touching their genitals. Only 26% of the teachers said they would report the first instance to the authorities and only 11% said they would report the second incident, where another teacher was accused, to the authorities.
The results of these studies and the recent scandals nationwide are nothing short of frightening. We can all agree that child protection is an incredibly important task. Yet, when it comes to those on the front lines, the mandatory reporters, the ones whom society trusts with the crucial task of child protection, the significance and immediacy of their roles has been forgotten. Mandatory reporters, as a cohort, are overwhelmed and desperately need help. Better training and support can go a long way in establishing proper systems and policies for child protection. But more importantly, a fundamental shift in mentality is necessary; we must forgo reputation, overlook individual pride, and instead, always put the children first.
Jeff Anderson and Jared Shepherd are attorneys and advocates working with and for survivors of clergy sexual abuse at Jeff Anderson & Associates.