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State expands who must report signs of child abuse
Legislation could increase reports, workload for Department of Human Services
Michael Childers and Tynayia Peoples, both 10, have a spirited game of air hockey Monday afternoon at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hall County.

If you work with children, it’s likely state law will soon obligate you to report signs of child abuse.

In a bill that follows on the heels of a child molestation scandal involving a football coach at Penn State University, Georgia lawmakers have broadened the scope of the state’s list of people who are mandated by law to report signs of child abuse.

Once the bill is signed by the governor, as of July 1 employees or volunteers at nearly any child service agency, members of the clergy and volunteers at centers for reproductive health will all be required to report suspected abuse.

The new law makes Georgia the 27th state in the country to mandate that members of the clergy report suspected abuse, said Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University School of Law.

Carter was part of a team that helped research and draft portions of the bill.

While the law does make an exception for child abuse reported as a form of confidential confession, Carter said that portion of the law is a direct response to the scandal at Penn State.

It had also been a plan of Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, for years.

“I think it took the public will and political will that came with a national scandal like Penn State to make it happen,” Carter said. “There was a lot of resistance to it previously.”

But the bill also makes more specific the rules for personnel at child service organizations, stating that the employees could work or volunteer for public or private, nonprofit or for-profit agencies that provide “care, treatment, education, training, supervision, coaching, counseling, recreational programs or shelter to children.

“I think it is hard to imagine someone who works with children who is not now included,” in the law’s requirements, Carter said.

Before, Carter said, no one quite knew who fell in the category of “child service organization personnel.”

“It felt very all-encompassing, and at the same time, very nonspecific,” Carter said. “You either felt like that was a catch-all or a way to escape the mandate, so to speak.”

Already, staff at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County, who work with more than 500 children in the county each day, have started training for the new law, said Chuck Graham, a unit director at one of the organization’s facilities.

“We just want to be proactive ... about looking out for child abuse,” said Graham.

Neal Curry, Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County physical education program coordinator, has already attended two of the training sessions.

In the sessions, he said he learned how to tell the difference between a sports injury and a bruise that came from a personal blow.

“They’re really showing you how you can tell if a kid is going through a situation like this,” Curry said.

But the new law doesn’t require the training nor does it provide the funding for it.

Carter believes the new law, once in effect, will result in an increased number of child abuse reports.

She said 2010 data showed that about 30 percent of child abuse reports came from people who weren’t required to report. The rest came from people who were.

“I think reasonably so you can expect the reports to increase, because there’s a heightened awareness to the mandated reporter statute. People are actively considering whether they fall within its mandates,” she said.

Carter said it’s a good thing, noting that between a quarter and a third of all child abuse is reported.

“We probably do need more detection of child abuse,” she said.

She believes lawmakers avoided one question, however: the cost.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services says the agency is still evaluating the legislation’s possible impacts on the agency’s work.

“We anticipate that this may result in an increase in the reports of child abuse and neglect made to the agency,” spokeswoman Lisa Shekell said in an email. “The department will investigate any report of child abuse or neglect as it currently does.”

Gov. Nathan Deal said his office is working with Department of Human Services Commissioner Clyde Reece to ensure current resources are being used efficiently. But he couldn’t say how funding for the agency might change if the workload increased dramatically because of the law.

“That’s a delicate balance when you try to deal with the responsibilities that the law places on individuals to report activities — obviously, reports have to be investigated,” Deal said. “So if by adding additional people to the mandatory reporting list — if that does increase the number of reports — then, obviously, there would be some correlation to an increased workload.”

And because there’s no plan for that, Carter questions how the state will make sure people are aware that they are required to report child abuse under the new law and how they will have the skills to detect it.

“That training piece is really where resource allocation would come, and I think as a political matter that was not something that really became a part of the discussion,” Carter said. “Because I think when you talk about resources, then you talk about money, and that tends to chill anyone’s interest in any changes to public policy.”

Graham said he thinks the law will change little about club staff’s day-to-day responsibilities. In his time at the club, Graham said he hasn’t experienced a situation of child abuse.

But he said he’s glad to know he’s got the training to deal with it if it ever does come.

“It’s a touchy situation, but we’ve been around children so much that at some point, you can tell when something’s not right,” said Graham.