Nannies: Mandated Reporters or Not?

Reprinted from the Winter 2020 Issue of Nanny Magazine

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A mandated reporter is a person who, because of his or her profession, is legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the relevant authorities.

But what is a profession?

Merriam-Webster defines the term profession as a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.

Enter the lack of clarity that leaves US nannies wondering if they are legally classified as mandated reporters or not.

As nannies strive to professionalize their industry by gaining education and training to transform their occupation into a profession—and gain the social acceptance that comes along with being accepted as professionals—it is no surprise that nannies do not fit into a box of their own.

Thus, the question of whether nannies are legally mandated reporters remains largely unanswered and varies from state to state.

The International Nanny Association reports that “according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (NCCANCH) all 50 states require individuals to report abuse, be it in the capacity of a child care worker or a concerned individual. Each state varies, but the responsibility to us is there.”

But does it matter?

According to Ronald Mah, Ph.D.—a California-based Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, author, and former child-development-center owner who first became acquainted with the nuances of the nanny industry when he presented on Child Abuse and Neglect at the 2010 INA Annual Conference in San Francisco, California—nannies not being legally classified as mandated reporters in some states may not bear as much weight as nannies think.

“When nannies are considering their responsibilities to report, they must consider their legal requirements, their professional requirements, and their personal values.” Their legal requirements reflect what relevant state law says they have to do, the professional requirements reflect the ethics they commit to upholding as part of professional or organizational memberships, and their personal values reflect the level of personal responsibility they feel regarding making a report of abuse or neglect.

But what nannies may be unaware of is how the Standard of Care may impact their ethical and legal responsibility to report. Mah explains, “What someone else in the same professional role would do in the same situation, what the expectation is of any person in that role, that is what we refer to as Standard of Care.” According to Mah, the Standard of Care is fluid and changing. “Today there may be no law that specifically classifies nannies as mandated reporters,” he said, “but that could change tomorrow. If a court decided that a similarly qualified person would make a report in the same situation and a nanny did not make a report, she could therefore be found liable for not making a report.” So, while there may not be a legal expectation of a nanny being a mandated reporter today, that could change any day should Standard of Care come into play because of a court’s interpretation. The legal duty to warn or duty to protect if someone makes a threat to harm or kill another person to their therapist—commonly known as the Tarasoff Duty—came not from legislation but a court ruling by a judge. The therapist was found to be legally liable for not doing something that had previously not been specifically defined as illegal!

Is moral obligation enough?

Within the industry, most would agree that the legal classification of nannies should have no bearing on whether a nanny should report suspected abuse and neglect, but the reasons are more complex. Among nannies, it is widely accepted that there is a moral obligation to report suspected abuse and neglect, but Mah is not sure that having a moral obligation is good enough.

“This issue with viewing the obligation to report as solely a moral dilemma is that legal and ethical mandates help people push through the fear and anxiety surrounding making a report. People do immoral things. They are scared and may not report if there is just a moral issue at hand. When the legal and ethical responsibility is not clear, it is easy to make excuses and get away from, as individuals and as a profession, reporting suspected abuse and neglect.” When there are straightforward legal and ethical mandates, however, the decision of whether to report or not becomes cleaner and simpler. When the decision is left to a moral one alone, you may ignore the whole human process that’s involved with decision making, which can include talking yourself out of doing something that you don’t want to do.

Service versus servant

How you think of yourself and your role—and the language you use to define the work you do—can impact how you view your responsibilities when it comes to reporting suspected abuse and neglect.

Mah asks nannies to consider if they are providing a service or working as a servant. “When you consider the four E’s—education, experience, expertise, and ethics—these are what make you a professional. And when you offer a professional service, you have an ethical obligation to share truth based on your education, experience, and expertise.” Mah equates this to viewing your employer as a customer or a client. What is the difference? When you are working with a customer, as they say, the customer is always right. When you are working with a client, they expect you to share your professional advice. “A client expects you to use your education, experience, expertise, and ethics (the values of the profession), to their benefit.” As nannies, you must consider how you think of yourself and your role. If you want to consider yourself a professional, there are ethical and legal obligations that go along with that.

What’s your language?

The language you use to describe your obligation to report can be telling of how you view your responsibility. “People often say ‘I had to make a report.’ And that sounds a lot like having to pay taxes,” shares Mah. “That language indicates resistance to reporting. Instead of saying I had to make a report, or I had to speak up, changing the language to ‘I advocate for children’ can impact how you view your responsibility.”

When considering reporting, people may also think in terms of “or” or “but” as they work through their internal process and struggle with their humanity. “I can report or not report.” “I was suspicious, but they are good people.” With “or,” there is an exclusivity in the thinking. You report or you do not report. You force yourself to choose a box. One of the choices lives, one of those choices dies. But is no better. But puts one thought first and one thought second, with the second negating the first. “This family treats me so well, but they do not pay me legally.” Is your employer really treating you well if they are not doing what is legally, ethically, or morally expected? A “but” statement minimizes the first half of the statement as being less important than the second half.

People have another option, however. They can think in terms of “and.” This is a powerful shift of thought and one Mah encourages nannies to embrace. “These people are nice AND they are abusing children.” Both statements are true, both are equally weighted. Both may reflect reality. When you think in terms of and, rather than “or” or “but,” the process of determining your next steps may be clearer.

Considerations

It’s easy to be ethical when you have job security, money in the bank, and your own place to live. It’s more difficult when you’re faced with making a decision when you know it could cost you your job, your security, and your housing.

Nannies are at risk of being exploited due to the very nature of their work. There is an unbalanced relationship between nannies and nanny employers that can make it challenging to take action when it involves the party in power.

Parents often refer to nannies as members of the family, for example. That designation alone removes the professional boundaries that are in place and can serve as protective barriers from exploitation. And boundaries aren’t real until you are up against them. Mah serves up this analogy. You are going car shopping and your budget is $5,000 for a car. That’s what you have and that’s what you are going to spend. Your mind has been made up. That is, until you are presented with a car that is $5,500. Now the boundary is real and will be tested. Nannies may believe they have boundaries in place with regards to what they believe substantiates abuse or neglect, or what they would do if they suspected abuse or neglect, but until that boundary is tested, their choices and actions remain unknown.

“It is human nature to talk yourself out of doing what you don’t want to do,” says Mah, so it is natural for nannies to try to convince themselves not to act. “You are faced with a problem, and you come to a solution. It is human nature to try to find another solution when you do not like the one you came up with. In fact, you may continue to try to find different solutions, but keep coming back to the first one because the first one was the right one. But it is also the hard one. That is the moral dilemma. Can you live with the decision you will make? And that is why a moral obligation to do the right thing is not the right thing at all.”

It would be remiss not to mention the nannies who stay in jobs for the sake of the children. The savior complex of staying to protect the children or staying to keep the kids afloat while they live through a bad situation presents problems all its own. In doing so, nannies may inadvertently enable unhealthy situations. They may empower parents to keep doing what they are doing rather than addressing change. Nannies may find themselves thinking, “I can make a report or I can stay and protect the children.” But when they switch their thinking, as Mah advised, to “I can make a report and I can protect the children,” what they must do next becomes clear.

Protecting Children

Children are an abundant natural resource. Like with air, water, and land, we do not protect our natural resources until they need protection or when they become scarce or threatened. We might not value things until a crisis arises, which turns it into a political issue. If there are enough atrocities and sensational failures to protect children, then public opinion can reach a critical mass and the protection of children can become a compelling political issue. “Police brutality is not new, for example,” reminds Mah. But after decades and centuries of abusive police actions, recent events have created a public consciousness and outrage, so there is now a critical mass of movement towards righting the wrongs.

Movements that reach critical mass flow from personal views which become moral values, which become society views and cultural values, which become professional views and ethical values, which become political views that lead to law, explains Mah. In the 1950s and 1960s, when mandated reporting became a political issue, doctors and therapists were initially resistant, saying “We too don't want to that. It will harm therapy.” But then the social and cultural change made it a compelling political issue, and legislators created mandated reporter laws.

As an industry, nannies find themselves at a crossroads. The industry is at a place in time where professional views and ethical values are being established. We must get ahead of this critical mass of social and cultural concern about protecting children before it becomes a political and legal issue. If nannies fail to get on the wave, politicians will be making laws and rules on an issue the industry could have taken care of on its own. And nannies could be viewed by politicians, the media, and the public as being resistant to reporting child abuse and neglect.

If nannies love children, they must protect children. They can protect children by advocating for children and by reporting suspected abuse and neglect. So often, it takes several reports and a robust paper trail for action to be taken on suspected abuse and neglect. Mah shared a story of how he once made the first report on a situation that should have been reported many times before. “Because of all of the professionals the child encountered prior who chose not to report, it cost that child years of abuse.” Nannies must be aware of the cost of their actions. And their inactions and the power of patterns in reporting.

What to report?

While there is no flow chart that can depict every scenario that would point you to whether something should be reportable or not, Mah offers some general guidelines for nannies.

If a child is hit in the head, there is a real potential for brain injury and neurological damage. Blows close to the trunk of the body can create internal organ damage. If a belt or stick or other object is used, it becomes a weapon and becomes a slippery slope to abuse. “When a belt or stick is used in frustration or anger, it’s designed to be a tool of efficiency to maximize damage and pain. Weapons are used to optimize damage.” A closed fist creates more trauma than an open hand. A “switch” gives the punishing adult no sensory feedback and how much pain (and thus, how much harm or injury) is being inflicted. If humiliation is used, emotional abuse comes into play. “People lose control when anger and frustration are involved,” says Mah, and that is when psychological abuse is likely to occur.

Mah recommends the following: “A good rule of thumb is that if you are suspicious and thinking about what to do, you should have already done what you are thinking about doing. If you must step back to analyze the situation or if you know something is wrong, something is wrong. Don’t make excuses.” Even though authorities might be resistant or even discourage you from making a report—claiming that it is not “bad enough”—making a report can eventually reveal a pattern of abusive behavior and save a child from harm.

According to the Children’s Welfare Information Gateway, “Approximately 47 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment,” and only one location, Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean, specifically names nannies as required reporters.

Originally Posted in Nanny Magazine. Written by Michelle LaRowe.

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