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Child Abuse Prevention and Reporting

Sexual abuse and other types of child abuse and misconduct are among the most serious liability issues modern churches face. Sadly, incidents of abuse have increased in recent years. Churches must be all the more diligent in their prevention efforts, not only to insulate themselves from liability, but to protect their most vulnerable members: children. A few common sense precautionary measures can help prevent child abuse, and churches should equip staff and volunteers with the knowledge and resources to respond appropriately should an unfortunate incident occur.

Churches can prevent many incidents of child abuse by implementing measures designed to keep unauthorized persons away from children and ensure that children are always supervised by qualified adults. Conducting adequate criminal history and background checks on all staff members or volunteers who will supervise children is crucial. Many churches mandate that such screening take place every few years so that workers will be subject to follow-up reviews. Another important practice is to require that children never be left alone with fewer than two screened, unrelated adults. Some churches refer to this as the “Two Adult Rule.” The rule protects not only children, but also adults from false claims. Yet another common precautionary measure is the use of random security patrols during church services and activities. Such patrols may prevent suspicious or unauthorized persons from gaining access to children; their mere existence may serve as a deterrent.

Regrettably, incidents of sexual abuse may occur despite a church’s best efforts at prevention. If an incident does occur, church staff and volunteers must respond quickly, appropriately, and with sensitivity. Many churches establish a formal internal process for investigating suspected abuse. However, many church workers are subject to mandatory abuse reporting requirements established by state law. Any internal church process does not supersede these reporting requirements and should never be considered a substitute for any individual’s statutory duty to report.

Mandatory child abuse reporting is governed by Chapter 7 of the South Carolina Children’s Code, which is codified in Title 63 of the South Carolina Code of Laws. Section 63-7-310 provides that certain persons, by virtue of their positions, are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect “when in the person’s professional capacity the person has received information which gives the person reason to believe that a child has been or may be abused or neglected as defined in Section 63-7-20.” Among the persons required to report are members of the clergy, school teachers, counselors, and childcare workers in a childcare center, all of whom could potentially be connected with a church in a professional capacity.

If a mandatory reporter receives information regarding a suspected incident of abuse, he or she must report the incident to the county Department of Social Services or to a law enforcement agency in the county where the child resides or is found. Though the statute does not specify any deadline for making a report, reports should be made as soon as possible, both to protect the alleged victim from further abuse and because any delay in reporting could be viewed as a failure to report, which is a criminal offense. The identity of the person making a report is kept confidential and may only be used for certain limited purposes, such as to further any criminal investigation that may result from the report. Moreover, a person who reports suspected abuse in good faith is immune from civil or criminal liability.

Importantly, the law does not differentiate between sources of information regarding suspected abuse. If the information gives the reporter reason to believe that a child has been or may be abused or neglected, the reporter must make a report regardless of whether the information came from the perpetrator, the victim, or a third party. A very narrow exception to this rule applies when the information “is received from the alleged perpetrator of the abuse and neglect during a communication that is protected by the clergy and penitent privilege as provided for in Section 19-11-90.” For the privilege to apply, the information must be a “confidential communication properly entrusted to [the regular or duly ordained minister] in his professional capacity and necessary and proper to enable him to discharge the functions of his office according to the usual course of practice or discipline of his church or religious body.”

Because there is no public office or agency responsible for advising persons with regard to their duties under the reporting statute, any person who is uncertain or undecided about the appropriate action to take in a given situation should consult a knowledgeable attorney for guidance. However, it is important to remember that the purpose of the reporting statute is to protect children and prevent future harm. Indeed, the statute provides that any person who has reason to believe that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be adversely affected by abuse or neglect may make a report. As believers, we recognize that children are gifts from God, and therefore all persons with information about suspected child abuse or neglect, whether or not they are mandatory reporters under the statute, are encouraged to report.

Robert T. Strickland and Matthew G. Gerrald
tom@basjlaw.com

Matt Gerrald is an attorney with the Columbia firm of Barnes, Alford, Stork & Johnson, LLP. He is a member of the Christian Legal Society and has been commissioned as a Blackstone Fellow by the Alliance Defense Fund.

Tom Strickland has practiced law with the Columbia firm of Barnes, Alford, Stork & Johnson, LLP since 1984. He has represented and advised many churches and religious organizations throughout South Carolina on a wide range of issues. He also serves as Chairman of the Richland/Lexington Disabilities and Special Needs Board. 

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