You Think You Are a Mandatory Reporter, But What Does That Actually Mean?


Understand signs to look for and what needs to be reported related to child sexual abuse                                                                                                                                                                                                        

A Risk That’s Not Going Away

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in four girls and one in 13 boys in the US will be the victim of child sexual abuse, with over 30% of that being perpetrated by another child. This is an increasing number.

Going through the motions of only taking your state-required mandated reporter training is no longer sufficient. With the prevalence of sexual misconduct and child-on-child sexual abuse on the rise, it is more important than ever for educational institutions to be at the forefront of sexual abuse awareness, education, training, and risk management.

Hand with Stop Child Abuse/terms

Most people know they are a mandatory reporter, but don’t really know what that entails. Do you know exactly what to report? To whom to report? When to report? That you could go to jail if you don’t report? This article will help clarify these topics and provide easy-to-use resources for when that reporting moment inevitably happens.

A couple things to keep in mind. First, there is no uniform set of standards for mandatory reporting across the country. California is used here as an example for some topics discussed, but please verify the specifics of your local laws and requirements. Second, the mention of “child” in this article refers to any minor of any age. Third, there will be mention of child sexual abuse. Please take care while reading.

Who Is a Mandated Reporter?

A mandated reporter is anyone required by law to report actual or suspected child abuse and neglect. For example, California has a list of nearly 50 professions that are mandated reporters. Some of these might be surprising including commercial computer technician, clergy, alcohol and drug counselors, animal control officers, police, and coroner.

While 47 states plus US territories have a required list of specific reporters, you might be surprised to find out that 18 states require everybody report. You have an automatic duty to report child abuse, by law.

Check to see if you are in one of those states.

What Do I Have to Report?

While this can vary from state-to-state, generally you will have to report all physical and sexual abuse of a minor (in addition to any other specific groups your state requires). For example, California defines “child abuse” as any of the following:

  • A child is physically injured by other than accidental means;
  • A child is subjected to willful cruelty or unjustifiable punishment;
  • A child is abused or exploited sexually; and/or
  • A child is neglected by a parent or caretaker who fails to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision.

Please check your specific state’s requirements and definitions to know exactly what has to be reported.

What Is the Standard for Reporting?

You have to use your common sense and best judgment to decide when and if to report. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule that says, “if you see XYZ,” then you must report.

In California, there are two standards: actual abuse and reasonable suspicion.

Reasonable suspicion is just that, suspicion that is reasonable. This does not mean proof beyond a reasonable doubt, scientific doubt, or imaginary doubt, as those would all be impossible standards.

In fact, in California, you don’t need any of the following to have reasonable suspicion:

  • Evidence;
  • Proof;
  • Certainty; or
  • Medical indication.

To Whom Do I Report? When Do I Report?

Depending on your state, you will have different people/groups to report to and timelines to follow. You may be required to report to any combination of the following: 1. Your supervisor in accordance with company policies and procedures; 2.Your local child welfare agency; and/or 3. Your local law enforcement agency.

Regarding timing, in California, a mandated reporter has 48 hours to submit a written report to your local law enforcement agency in the city where the incident occurred.

Regardless of your jurisdiction, always remember that you must report immediately; or as soon as is practicable. There are no exceptions to that rule.

What Happens if I Don’t Report?

It is a crime! In California, it is a misdemeanor, which can land you in jail for up to six months, with a fine up to $1,000, or both. Not reporting also opens yourself and your organization up to additional liability.

What Happens if I Am Incorrect About a Report I Made?

If you make a report and it turns out you were wrong about what you saw/heard/believed, don’t worry! As long as the report was made in good faith, there’s no liability to you or your organization. You just can’t make a false report as that is a crime in and of itself. This is a difficult area with a lot of gray. Use your good judgment, common sense, and surrounding circumstances of what you have seen/heard/and been told to make this determination.

Training Requirements

Mandatory reporter training varies by state, industry, and job position. Check to see the requirements for your specific state. Keep in mind, if you do not complete required training, the state can issue fines and/or pull your business license, permit, and ability to operate.

Word cloud of child abuse terminology

What Is Child Sexual Abuse?

There are five main areas of child sexual abuse: contact, no-contact, online, exploitation, and grooming. Any abuse, in any of these areas, triggers your duty to report.

  • Contact Abuse: This is when an abuser makes physical contact with a child. This can include sexual touching of any part of a child's body, whether they are clothed or not, forcing a child to take part in sexual activities, and making a child undress or touch someone else. This can also include touching, kissing, and oral sex. Keep in mind two important points: 1. Minors can’t consent, even if they’re in a “consensual relationship.” A minor in a relationship does not negate your reporting requirement; and 2. With regard to contact abuse, sexual abuse is not just penetration.
  • No-Contact Abuse: It is very important to know that child sexual abuse can be accomplished without touching. Words alone are enough. Additionally, if there is touching, it does not have to be skin-to-skin. It can be over clothing, including touching of the breasts or buttocks while clothed.
  • Online Sexual Abuse: This is a type of no-contact abuse where a child is abused without being touched by the abuser. Online abuse can happen across any device that is connected to the web, including computers, tablets, and cell phones. It can happen anywhere online, including social media, text messages and other messaging apps, emails, online chats, gaming, and live-streaming sites.
  • Child Sexual Exploitation: When a child is exploited, they are given things, such as gifts, drugs, money, status, and affection, in exchange for performing sexual activities. In this type of abuse, children are often tricked into believing they are in a loving and consensual relationship.
  • Grooming: This is when a person develops a relationship with any minor to enable sexual abuse.

Groomers may try any of the following:

    • Isolate children from their friends and family;
    • Make the child feel dependent on them;
    • Use blackmail to make a child feel guilt and shame or introduce the idea of 'secrets' to control, frighten and intimidate; and/or
    • Build a relationship with the child’s family or friends to make them seem trustworthy.

Warning Signs and Red Flags

The following two lists describe subtle warning signs of both perpetrators and victims of violence. Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list and it applies to all sexes and genders.

Many of these warning signs may be exhibited by everyday, average, and kind people. Just because you notice one or more of these signs exhibited by someone, does not necessarily mean that they are a perpetrator or victim. Trust your gut instinct and use your good judgment and common sense to look at the totality of circumstances and make an informed decision. If in doubt, speak with your supervisor right away. Remember, you do not need proof, evidence, or certainty of a crime. As long as your report is made in good faith, there is no liability to you or your organization.

Warning Signs of Perpetrators

  • Does not respect boundaries or listen when someone tells them “no”
  • Engages in touching that a child or child’s parents have indicated is unwanted
  • Tries to be a child’s friend rather than filling an adult role in the child’s life
  • Does not seem to have age-appropriate relationships
  • Spends time alone with children outside of their role in the child’s life or makes up excuses to be alone with the child
  • Has a "special" child friend, oftentimes, that is the focus of their attention
  • Expresses unusual interest in child’s sexual development

Warning Signs of Older Children and Teen Victims of Sexual and/or Physical Abuse

Some of the warning signs that a teen or older child has been abused can easily blend in with their everyday struggles. Open communication can be a challenge, but it is an important part of keeping them safe.

If you notice any of the following warning signs, you should immediately reach out:

  • Anxiety, struggling to concentrate, or reduced productivity on school work
  • Sudden and/or frequent absences or tardiness
  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Talk of suicide or self-harm
  • Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for their age
  • Sudden, unexplained personality changes and mood swings, including agitation, anxiety, or constant apprehension and worry
  • Spending increasing amounts of time on the internet
  • Sudden loss of interest in daily activities
  • Wearing clothes that do not fit the weather
  • Declines professional development opportunities
  • Becoming increasingly secretive, particularly around use of technology
  • Not being able to talk openly about their activity online
  • Becoming possessive of their phone and concerned if someone picks it up or wants to look at it
  • Having a poor or inconsistent story for injuries or marks on their body
  • Agitated behavior when answering their phone and needing to take calls in private
  • Not wanting to be left alone with certain people or being afraid to be away from primary caregivers, especially if this is a new behavior

Your obligation as a mandated reporter is one of the most important aspects of your job. While you will hopefully not be in a situation where you must report, it is crucial to the safety and livelihood of your institution, employees, and students to be as prepared and diligent as possible. For more information or for any questions, please reach out to your supervisor, HR department, or legal counsel.

Jill Ostrove


By Jill Ostrove, VP of SML, Public Entity, and D&O Risk Management, ePlace Solutions, Inc.

Insights Home