DENVER — A report released by the Child Protection Ombudsman of Colorado highlights several serious gaps in the mandatory reporting system for people who suspect child abuse or neglect.
The seven-page report found that there is a lack of clarity in the laws around mandatory reporting, a lack of training for professionals and an overall confusion about how the reporting should work.
The report references the case of 7-year-old Olivia Gant. For years, Olivia’s mother, Kelly Turner, took her into one hospital appointment after another claiming she was terminally ill.
Olivia was honored by the Make-A-Wish campaign, law enforcement, sports teams and more. In 2017, she was moved into a hospice where she later died.
One year later, Turner took Olivia’s sister into the doctor's office for complaints about bone pain. The doctor allegedly discovered that Turner had lied about the older daughter having previously suffered from cancer and reported the mother to the authorities.
She was later arrested and charged with murder for the death of Olivia and is awaiting trial.
“I think the hospital the doctors and the staff should all be held accountable. Someone should be able to be held accountable. They could’ve made one phone call as far back as 2012 and saved her life,” said Olivia’s step-grandfather, Lonnie Grautreau, in a June 30 interview with KOAA in Colorado Springs.
The family sued Colorado Children’s Hospital for $25 million for not filing a report with the state, claiming numerous doctors knew or suspected something was wrong. That lawsuit was recently settled.
However, in June, the family was pushing for a change to the hospital’s mandatory reporting policies.
“The policy to me is against the law. They’re stopping people who are mandated by law to report to social services abuse and there was abuse raised by numerous people and it didn’t go anywhere. So that policy needs to change,” Grautreau said.
Colorado’s mandatory reporting laws
Colorado has had a mandatory reporting law on the books since 1963. It was the first state in the country to do so. Since that time, the law has been amended 31 times and now includes 40 different groups of professionals who are required to report abuse or neglect to the state.
The idea behind the law is that children do not have the maturity, resources, emotional capacity, etc. to report the abuse themselves and so it’s up to adults to speak up on their behalf.
Professions with mandatory reporting requirements include police officers, health care workers, school staff, social workers, clergy members, therapists and more.
It is a Class 3 misdemeanor to not report suspected abuse or neglect, and Colorado’s law offers legal and job protections for people who report in good faith.
However, there is no statewide mandate that requires mandatory reporters to undergo training about the signs to look out for and how to report it, nor is there any requirement for ongoing education.
“Training right now is not mandated for any mandatory reporters and I think that would be a great next step,” said Stephanie Villafuerte, the Child Protection Ombudsman of Colorado.
Some mandatory reporting professions like teachers and law enforcement do have their own policies in place when it comes to required training. The state also offers a free online mandatory reporting course for anyone to take.
Colorado also does not have a statewide notification system to inform new mandatory reporters of their responsibilities, so Villafuerte says it’s possible that some people are unaware of their obligations.
As a result, the Ombudsman Office has received countless calls over the years from mandatory reporters who are unclear about what to do if they suspect abuse or neglect.
“A lot of reporters confuse their role of reporter as that of fact finder and indeed we are not asking people to determine if abuse and neglect took place, we are asking you to report it and then let the officials do their job,” Villafuerte said.
A 2016 survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) found that many of these professionals could not identify the steps they need to take to report a suspected case and were confused about who to report to.
Much of the reporting confusion stems back to institutional reporting or determining whether to bring up the incident to a human resources professional within a profession or to take it straight to the state.
“One of things we want to do is clarify once and for all that if we’re going to allow facilities, large scale facilities, to form their own policies, then let’s to have some guardrails around it,” Villafuerte said.
While several other states have clear regulations around how reporting should work with institutions that have their own rules, Villafuerte says it’s something Colorado’s law completely lacks.
She also wants to ensure that the institutions aren’t withholding information or failing to report simply because of the potential damage a case of abuse or neglect could do to the institution’s reputation.
“Historically, Colorado has had cases where there have been principals, for example, who deliberately withheld that information from authorities,” Villafuerte said. “We want to make sure that employers aren’t discouraging staff members from making the report but rather they’re assisting them.”
The report also found that there needs to be more clarification around how immediately someone needs to report the suspected abuse or neglect.
While many other states have strict time limits on when reporting must take place, Colorado’s is vague and open to interpretation.
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Arapahoe, has been working on mandatory reporting legislation for years. Most recently she was able to extend the statute of limitations for how long someone has to report the neglect or abuse.
She’s already reviewing the report to see whether more legislation is necessary in the future to address some of the concerns raised.
“What I appreciate about the recommendations that it put forth is it provides an opportunity for greater clarity and clarification around mandatory reporting and what we need to be doing to make sure that we’re keeping our kids safe,” Fields said.
She supports additional training for mandatory reporters and says she doesn’t believe in a hierarchy of reporting. Instead, she wants concerns professionals to feel comfortable going directly to the authorities.
“The law, though well-intentioned, has been poorly executed for years. If Colorado wants its citizens to report suspected child abuse and neglect competently and responsibly, mandatory reporters must be given the tools to do so,” the report concluded.