The Duty to Protect – When to Intervene

Predators preying upon children for sexual gratification are crimes that have touched all segments of our society. Offenders range from parents and clergy to law enforcement officers and elected officials; men and women; grandparents and siblings have all been accused of having committed sex crimes against children. In many cases the offenders, because of their relationship to the victim had a special duty to protect the child from harm, and even a legal duty to report the very act that they themselves committed. While sex crimes offend the public conscience more than most other forms of child of mistreatment of children, it must not be forgotten the abuse of children by adults and other children is happening all around us and that while in some cases the abuse may be difficult to identify for a host of reasons some of which will be identified herein, and it may inflict pain and suffering that the child will carry into adulthood with often physical and psychological consequences difficult if not impossible to reverse.

There are many legal issues concerned with the subject of child abuse, some dealing with the serious criminal ramifications for such conduct and others focusing on important civil aspects of abusive acts implicating regulatory agencies of government and even private litigation seeking damages for the harm caused. It is not my purpose to deal with these issues by focusing on the penalties for causing harm to children or for failing to prevent such events from occurring but rather to examine why decent people fail to get involved to prevent child abuse, to take stops to terminate the abuse and to notify appropriate authorities when they become aware that such acts have occurred.

Professionals such as teachers, psychologists and other health workers have a reporting requirement to notify proper authorities including law enforcement and governmental agencies charged with protecting children from abuse; failure to report suspected abuse carries with it significant professional and other penalties. For the majority of adults who may become aware of such acts, the abuse goes unreported either because witnesses are unsure of whether their involvement is appropriate, or of the extent of their authority to intervene or where to take their observations or suspicions for further investigation particularly when the abusive conduct is not actually observed by the witness who may only have observed evidence after the fact or heard of the abusive conduct from a third party. In short, when it comes to intervening in child abuse there is often a reluctance to intervene into what is considered a parental supervision question best left to families and governmental agencies to deal with.

We have long recognized that there are times when action must be undertaken to help others who are unable to protect themselves from harm because of conditions with which another is unable to cope. Sometimes we act to help because like a parent, a teacher, or because we are aware of a danger that others are not, society recognizes a duty to protect against a foreseeable risk of harm and about which we impose penalties for failing to act when the failure to do so results in harm to a child, a patient, a student or another to whom a legal duty to protect from harm is recognized in the law.

But not every circumstance of child abuse carries with it a specific set of protocols regarding the appropriate manner of response for intervention. We often hesitate to get involved over fear that our action may be uncalled for, or that our observations were misinterpreted or that the abuse was nothing more than discipline for a committed transgression that we were unaware of. Whatever the case, when we err on the side of caution we may allowing the continuance of a course of conduct may result in escalation in the manner of the abuse and the scope of victims involved or to be involved in the future.

Recent events involving college level athletic coaches and high school teachers in which long histories of abuse involving multiple victims were alleged to have taken place are examples of the extent violators are willing to go in engaging in sexual abuse of children. These events have also served to spotlight those who were violators or who failed to report violations and those in positions of authority who failed to intervene or hesitated to prosecute when they knew or should have known that children were at risk. It is relatively easy to proceed criminally or civilly against those who have failed in their legal duty to protect against child abuse, the harder problem is how to encourage those whose duty may exist only in a personal code of conduct, a religious belief or out of recognition that to maintain civility in society we must be ready to come forward on behalf of the children amongst us even when the duty to so is simply humanitarian. We have evolved to the point when some in society have a legal duty to report child abuse as part of an ethical obligation created in law, I believe it is time to extend that ethical standard to all among us who are old enough to understand the nature of child abuse for adoption into our personal moral code as part of our personal duty to civility in society.

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