People often ask me, “Why didn’t they even give me a chance to explain?”
Whether they’re referring to the teacher / doctor / neighbor / spouse, the question is the same. Often, a person first learns that he or she has been accused of committing a heinous act of child abuse or child sexual abuse without even being given the first benefit of the doubt or a chance to explain.
Child abuse or Child sexual abuse cases often begin in the following ways:
- Maybe a teacher became concerned when a child told an incomprehensible story teetering on the line between fact and fiction, but the teacher didn’t dare dismiss it as fantasy.
- Perhaps a doctor treated a child with a urinary tract infection, and the little boy or girl told the doctor that “it hurt down there.”
- It could be that a neighbor hosting a sleepover called the police after overhearing a child tell friends an explicit story that seemed age-inappropriate and suggested abuse.
- Possibly a person on Facebook saw a parent sharing photos of a baby taking a nude bath, and the photo offended the sensibilities of the viewer.
- Maybe one spouse believes that it is no longer appropriate for the other spouse to sleep in the same bed with the child as he or she reaches a certain age or stage in development.
What do all of these scenarios have in common? Two things: 1) The perceived abuse or sexual abuse was likely reported by well-intentioned people who were trying to do the right thing, and 2) The perceived abuse or sexual abuse was required by law to be reported.
Let’s look at how this required reporting can lead to horrific results.
What is the law in Tennessee with regard to reporting of child abuse or child sexual abuse?
Tennessee law mandates that a person with knowledge of physical or mental harm to a child MUST report child abuse and/or child sexual abuse.
- Any person who has knowledge of physical or mental harm to a child must report law enforcement when: (1) the nature of the harm reasonably indicates it was caused by brutality, abuse, or neglect; or (2) on the basis of available information, the harm reasonably appears to have been caused by brutality, abuse, or neglect.
- In addition, Tennessee law mandates reporting by any person who knows or has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been sexually abused, regardless of whether it appears the child has sustained an injury as a result of the abuse
- Any person who knowingly fails to make a report of child abuse as required by Tennessee law commits a Class A misdemeanor. Any person who knowingly and willfully fails to report known or suspected child sexual abuse, or who knowingly and willfully prevents another person from doing so, commits a Class A misdemeanor.
Naturally, these adults are going to err on the side of caution, given the potential for future abuse if unreported. And if the abuse or sexual abuse is real, then thank goodness further harm can be avoided. However, if these adults are wrong – or in some cases, if a person has deliberately misreported such an event – then the harm to the defendant is devastating and life-altering.
Speech has been compared to an arrow: once the words are released, like an arrow, they cannot be recalled. The harm these words cause cannot be stopped, and the harm they cause cannot always be predicted. Words – like an arrow – can often go astray.
Because the law requires reporting, these individuals can no longer try to ‘get to the truth’ – instead, they are probably worrying about what will happen to them if they don’t report it. They aren’t going to bring you in and ask, “Hey, can you explain this?” And if your explanation satisfies them, they aren’t going to say, “Oh, okay, that makes sense,” and then release the child back into your care. They can be subjected to criminal charges if they don’t report the perceived abuse or sexual abuse. This often happens with spouses of defendants accused of a sexual offense.
Notice that the standard is especially relaxed for possible sexual abuse. The person does not have to possess “actual knowledge” – only a reasonable belief that a child might have been sexually abused. Additionally, there is no requirement of any injury whatsoever.
One could argue that these policies protect children and that given the potential harm, these laws are reasonable and necessary. Alternatively, one could argue that given the potential harm to defendants, these policies are unfair and over-inclusive. It is understandable why children are given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the initial reporting, but too often, the gatekeepers who could stop the forward momentum fail to stand in the way of false positives, even when it becomes clear that – while the initial reporting might have been justified – further investigation does not support a conclusion of abuse.
As a society, we can only hope that law enforcement, health professionals, and the medical experts will stop making emotional decisions and reach the right result in the end. And when they don’t, then you’d better call Memphis Sex Crime Attorney J. Jeffrey Lee before further damage results.
No one ever believes that they are only an accusation away until it happens to them.