Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Legal Aid Testifies in Opposition to Universal Mandatory Reporting Law

Meridel Bulle-Vu, Staff Attorney

On Monday, I was among the many advocates, citizens, and government officials testifying at a D.C. Council Committee Hearing in opposition to the Child Sexual Reporting Act of 2012, a bill that would impose a universal mandatory reporting duty on all adults in D.C.  Specifically, the bill would require all private citizens in the District, without exception, to immediately report any suspicion that a child is or has ever been the victim of sexual abuse or else risk criminal or civil penalties for failing to do so. While well-intentioned, the Act is overbroad and would ultimately do more harm than good.  My written and oral testimony highlighted just a couple of the many serious problems with the Act:

First, there is no evidence demonstrating that mandatory reporting laws increase child safety.  Given this lack of evidence, the harms imposed by universal mandatory reporting outweigh the benefits.  False reports of abuse are likely to increase, particularly with citizens fearing criminal sanctions, and as a result, more children are likely to be unnecessarily removed from their homes for the duration of an investigation.  This level of government intrusion into a child’s life causes lasting harm to the child, not to mention the disruption it causes families as a whole.  In addition, investigating the increased number of reports would take additional resources, and where those are lacking, would dilute the already strained resources of Child Protective Services.  While they focus attention on false reports, a real case of child sexual abuse might slip through the cracks.

Second, the Act does not provide for any exception for victims of domestic violence or their service providers, who might be unable to safely report incidents of child sexual abuse until the victims are adequately protected from their abusers and receiving mental health counseling to address the trauma often associated with abuse.  Instead of recognizing the horrors of such situations, the Act would turn victims into criminals for failing to report child sexual abuse, even if it occurred years earlier.

Finally, the Act does not provide an exception for attorney-client communication.  I testified about how this would potentially chill the willingness of clients to share critical information with their lawyers and thereby compromise the ability of lawyers to help the most vulnerable clients.

Written testimony on these issues can be accessed here.

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