Two school administrators in the Northeast Kingdom are facing criminal charges that they neglected to report allegations of sexual abuse at Danville High School.
The case shines a light on protections the state of Vermont has put in place to protect children from abuse and also on the difficult task of enforcing those protections.
The difficulty of the task can be seen in the numbers: In 2012 the Department for Children and Families investigated 4,527 reports of abuse. That is a huge number. The department has 50 investigators, which works out to about 90 investigations for each.
The department receives assistance in identifying possible cases of abuse from a variety of groups that are mandated by law to report suspected cases. These include teachers, doctors and social workers. If a mandated reporter fails to report a substantive case of child abuse, the reporter may face criminal allegations, which is what happened in Danville.
The law distinguishes between abuse against a child and misconduct. The law defines sexual abuse by spelling out specific forms of sexual touching. Misconduct is inappropriate behavior with children that does not rise to the level of abuse. Teachers and other mandated reporters are not required to report misconduct to DCF.
In the Danville case, the superintendent of schools and the principal concluded they were dealing with a case of misconduct, and they did not report the incident to DCF. But the parents did, and DCF concluded that the case involved abuse, meaning that the school administrators had misjudged the case.
The realm of sexual abuse and the need to report it is full of pitfalls. Those charged with protecting children are aware that accusations of child abuse can destroy careers, ruin lives. Making an allegation is a heavy burden, which is why the job of investigating abuse belongs to DCF rather than to people who may be too close to the perpetrators to make sound judgments.
It is important to remember why this sort of bureaucratic machinery was set in motion in the first place. For as long as anyone can remember child sexual abuse has been a dark secret that people were afraid to explore because of what they would learn about the abusers within their families, within their communities, within hallowed institutions such as schools and churches.
And yet the toll suffered by children has been devastating, a cycle of tragedy that has scarred psyches over the generations, one generation visiting its pain on the next. The much publicized cases of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church are just the tip of the iceberg. The 4,527 reports last year in Vermont suggest a degree of pathology that requires consistent, vigilant attention to the welfare of children.
Determining the truth of what children report is not easy; it requires sensitivity, patience and discernment. No one wants to inflate unprofessional misconduct into a report of abuse. But historically, the criminal abuse of children has been an unaddressed scandal so vast that parents and those working on behalf of children are also loath to see a report of abuse go neglected.
Serving notice to professionals who neglect to file a report when one is in order is a good thing. We cannot go back to the days when a wink and a nod allowed for the continued indulgence of an abusive uncle or teacher or priest. These are harrowing cases for all involved — for the accuser, the accused, for the family of the victim, and above all for the victim.
It always comes back to the victims, who for generations have been made to feel that the abuse they suffered was somehow their fault, that their pain needed to be hushed up and ignored, their humanity denied.
The details of the case in Danville have not been revealed, but the case has been an important reminder of the responsibility that we all share for protecting our children.
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