A new Georgia law broadens the categories of people required to report suspected child abuse, with violators facing up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. I abhor maltreatment of children; yet I wonder whether such penalties might instill overzealous action by mandatory reporters who fear to withhold borderline suspicions of abuse. Indeed, I’ve already seen signs of potential overreaction.
A shocking sight awaited me when I picked up Ernie for our weekly mentoring session today. Not only did a pronounced shiner surround his right eye, but bandages of white gauze encased both of his hands as well! Aghast, I asked him: “What happened?!”
Ernie shrugged, and without looking me in the eye mumbled: “I fell.”
I’d seen enough Law and Order episodes for those words to raise warning flags. Knowing in-school mentors number among the new law’s expanded mandatory reporters, I felt compelled to pursue the matter: “C’mon, who gave you the black eye?”
Staring at the floor, Ernie mumbled again: “My mom, but it was an accident.”
Isn’t that what every abused kid says? I thought. “What kind of accident?” I queried.
Gazing at his toes, the lad stubbornly replied: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
When I returned him to his classroom, I asked his teacher if she’d reported Ernie’s mother for suspected child abuse.
Ms. McDaniel vehemently exclaimed: “Of course not; it was an accident!”
I couldn’t believe she’d turned a blind eye to the problem and told her so.
“No, no. You don’t understand…” she began. But before she could finish the thought, a melee erupted in the back of her classroom. “I’ve got to handle this,” she informed me, “but I’ll call you in a little while and explain everything.”
When the school day neared its end and I still hadn’t received the promised call, I telephoned her. I said I wanted to ensure we talked before Ernie went home to his mother.
Incredibly, she told me Ernie had already left. I couldn’t believe she’d released him into the hands of a potential abuser. Informing her I’d visit her in person to discuss her “violation of Georgia law,” I hung up before she could say another word.
When I marched into her deserted classroom a half hour later, Ms. McDaniel immediately commented: “Like I tried to tell you earlier, Richard, Ernie’s injuries were accidental.”
“How could you know that?!!” I scornfully inquired.
“Because I was there! Ernie’s mother came to our end of the year party, and she happened to enter the classroom just as her son fled from a boy he’d shot with a spitball. Ernie didn’t look where he was going, and he ran face-first into his mother’s elbow, causing her to drop a glass bowl of Jell-O. As a result, he fell down and cut both of his hands on the shattered glass. So you see, purely an accident; and I’m not surprised Ernie’s too embarrassed to talk about it.”
Thanking Ms. McDaniel for clearing matters up, I quickly exited the room, dialed the same number I’d punched in while driving to the school, and asked the person answering the line: “How does one go about canceling a report of suspected child abuse?”
full body cast is just one of the potential signs of