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In Indiana, an individual who has reason to believe that a child is the victim of child abuse or neglect shall make an immediate oral or written report to the Indiana Department of Child Services (“DCS”) or to a local law enforcement agency. Ind. Code § 31-33-5-1, -4.  This obligation applies to everyone regardless of whether a person obtains knowledge of the alleged child abuse or neglect in their personal or professional capacity.

Prior to July 1, 2017, if an individual was required to make a report in their capacity as a member of the staff of a medical or other public or private institution, school, facility, or agency, the individual was required to immediately notify the person in charge of the institution, school, facility, or agency, or that person’s designated agent.  The person who received the report was then required to immediately report the alleged child abuse or neglect to DCS or law enforcement.  Ind. Code § 31-33-5-2 (2016).  As of July 1, 2017, a member of the staff of a medical or other public or private institution, school, facility, or agency, is now required to immediately report alleged child abuse or neglect directly to DCS or law enforcement, and then notify the person in charge of the institution, school, facility, or agency, or that person’s designated agent, that the report was made.[1] Ind. Code § 31-33-5-2 (2017).  Additionally, an employer cannot implement a policy that would restrict or delay the duty of an employee or individual to make a report. Ind. Code § 31-33-5-5.

The most common types of child abuse or neglect that must be reported are situations where: (1) a child’s physical or mental condition is seriously impaired or seriously endangered as a result of the inability, refusal, or neglect by the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian to supply the child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, or supervision; (2) a child’s physical or mental health is seriously endangered due to injury by the act or omission of the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian; or (3) a child is the victim of a sex offense. Ind. Code § 31-34-1-1-3.              

An individual has “reason to believe” that a child is the victim of child abuse or neglect if there is evidence that, if presented to individuals of similar backgrounds and training, would cause the individual to believe that a child was abused or neglected. Ind. Code § 31-9-2-101.  A person who makes a report of child abuse or neglect is immune from any civil or criminal liability that might otherwise be imposed because of such actions. Ind. Code § 31-33-6-1.  However, a person who knowingly fails to make a report of child abuse or neglect commits a Class B misdemeanor. Ind. Code § 31-33-22-1.

In Smith v. State, 8 N.E.3d 668 (Ind. 2014), the Indiana Supreme Court addressed some of the requirements of reporting child abuse or neglect.  In Smith, a high school principal was informed by a 16 year old female student that she had been raped by a 16 year old male student during the lunch hour in a school bathroom.  The principal did not report the alleged rape to DCS until 4 hours later. Id. at 670-672.  The principal was subsequently convicted of failure to report child abuse.  Id. at 673.  The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, but the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s conviction. Id.

One issue addressed by the Indiana Supreme Court was what “immediately” means in the child abuse reporting statute.  The Court ruled that the term “immediately” conveys a required strong sense of urgency in action and primacy of purpose in fulfilling the duty to report child abuse and also agreed with the trial court’s definition which included a requirement that the report be made “without delay; at once; instantly.” Id. at 677. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the principal did not report the rape “immediately” because his 4 hour delay included doing intermediary tasks such as interrogating the alleged rapist, ordering a search of the students’ lockers for evidence corroborating the alleged rapist’s defense, declining to contact the police when asked, and most notably, conducting two hours’ worth of unrelated and purely administrative job interviews. Id. 679.  The Supreme Court explained that the child abuse reporting law “contemplates that individuals like teachers, school administrators, and hospital workers are often the first ones to become aware of serious problems in a child’s life.  The State therefore entrusts those people to be the first lines of defense with respect to our most vulnerable citizens, and it likewise imparts on them a sterner obligation of intervention.” Id. at 678.

The Supreme Court rejected the principal’s defense that the reporting statutes permit a citizen to delay reporting in order to “assess and reflect” before facing criminal liability and professional censure. Id. at 689.  The Court held that the statutes do the opposite, that is, they require immediate reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect and immunize from criminal and civil liability those who immediately report conduct that turns out after later assessment and reflection by DCS or law enforcement to have been innocent. Id.  It is not the responsibility of the person reporting child abuse or neglect to investigate. Id. at 690.

If confronted with a case of possible child abuse or neglect in your role as a private citizen, a coach, an educator, a medical provider, or in any other capacity, it is critical that a report be made immediately to DCS or law enforcement.  A failure to report could lead to a conviction of a Class B misdemeanor which could have a significant effect on your personal and professional life. The phone number for the Indiana Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-800-5556.

[1]  These changes do not apply to an individual who is a member of the staff of a hospital licensed under Ind. Code § 16-21-2.  These individuals continue to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the individual in charge of the hospital or their designated agent, who then must immediately report the allegations to DCS or law enforcement. Ind. Code § 31-33-5-2.5

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