School employees and child abuse: Obligations and risks

May 26, 2000 Published Work
Connecticut Jewish Ledger, May 26, 2000

The Hartford Courant recently reported that complaints regarding child abuse by Antonio Lasaga had been made to officials at the Hamden YMCA, but that YMCA officials failed to take any further action.
Lasaga is the Yale professor awaiting sentencing on child pornography charges and awaiting trial on sexual assault charges. In the wake of this report, several readers asked me the following questions:
1. Do school employees have any obligations to report such conduct and, if so, to whom?
2. What actions can school officials take against those accused of such misconduct?
3. What is the relationship between such "secular" obligations and Jewish law (Halachah)?
School employees have an obligation under Connecticut law to report the abuse of, or imminent risk of harm to, children in their care. Teachers, principals, guidance counselors, paraprofessionals, social workers and others paid to care for our children must file an oral report with the Commissioner of Children and Families (DCF) or a law enforcement agency within 24 hours of "having reasonable cause to suspect or believe that a child [under the age of 18] has been abuse or neglected by telephone or in person." A written report must be submitted to the DCF Commissioner within 48 hours of the oral report.
Both the oral and written reports must contain certain information, including the circumstances under which the abuse became known to the reporter, the identity of the person suspected and what action, if any, was taken to aid the child. In some cases, a copy of the written report must be provided to certain school or state officials. Failure to file a report could result in a fine of up to $500.
If the DCF Commissioner concludes after an investigation that there is "reasonable cause to believe that a child has been abused" a certified (i.e., public) school employee in a position for which certification is necessary must be suspended with full pay and benefits until appropriate action is taken by the Board of Education. A private school employee may be suspended with full pay and benefits until the "incident of abuse has been satisfactorily resolved by the employer." In all cases, the accused risks discharge from employment, revocation of professional certifications, and criminal and civil liability.
Within Halachah, facts must be distinguished from rumor before a course of action is pursued and the Torah's mandate against spreading "gossip," albeit true, must be considered. Yet, as articulated in the seminal work on the topic, "Guard Your Tongue," written by the Chafetz Chaim, a great early 20th century European Torah scholar, specific circumstances may override this general prohibition.
A competing value within Torah thought exists: "Do not stand idly by while your neighbors blood is shed" (Leviticus 19:6), which may mandate an individual not to withhold information that can be of life and death significance to another person. Halachah also requires that Jews abide by secular laws in the jurisdictions in which they live. Since abuse destroys all aspects of a child's life and violates Connecticut law, Halachah apparently requires the reporting of suspected abuse to the proper authorities – at least to the extent necessary to protect the child and obey the law. Halachah also supports imposition of penalties designed to prevent the perpetrator from committing the offense again.
School employees with reasonable cause to believe that a child has been abuse or faces imminent risk of harm have an obligation under both secular and Jewish law to report the situation, while employees guilty of committing such abuse face severe sanctions, including incarceration.
Authors note: Rabbi Daniel Cohen, spiritual leader of Young Israel of West Hartford assisted with this column.