Providence senator seeks changes to DCYF abuse reporting law

Dan McGowan
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – State Sen. Maryellen Goodwin has introduced legislation that would change Rhode Island’s mandatory child abuse reporting law to require school leaders – not all employees – to contact the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families within 24 hours when a student accuses an adult of touching them inappropriately.

The Providence Democrat’s proposal is designed to provide clarity on the existing reporting law following the misdemeanor conviction of a city elementary school principal for failing to contact DCYF after multiple students told her a teacher touched them last May.

More than a dozen school employees became aware of the case in the weeks following the students’ allegations, but no one contacted DCYF until July. Violet LeMar, the principal, was the only employee charged with failing to report. The teacher, James Duffy, has pleaded not guilty to six counts of second-degree child molestation and a single count of simple assault.

“Making the reporting law more specific will help ensure that incidents cannot be swept under the rug, while also protecting DCYF from having to waste precious resources and time investigating matters that aren’t abuse, or weeding through multiple reports about the same incident, so they can instead focus on helping children who need their services,” Goodwin said in a prepared statement.

It does not appear LeMar would have avoided prosecution under the changes put forward by Goodwin. School employees would be required to immediately notify the “principal, headmaster, executive director, or other person in charge of the educational program, or their designated agent” of any abuse allegations. The school leaders would then be required to contact DCYF.

The law also addresses a focal point of LeMar’s unsuccessful defense when she stood trial in January: the definition of “reasonable cause to know or suspect.” LeMar’s attorney argued the existing law failed to define reasonable cause and LeMar maintained she didn’t believe the children’s accusations were abusive in nature.

Goodwin’s proposal states that reasonable cause means “that it is objectively reasonable for a person to entertain a suspicion, based upon facts that could cause a reasonable person in a like position, drawing, when appropriate, on their training and experience, to suspect child abuse.”

The law would also require the state education commissioner to set policies “for the creation and handling of reports” made by the school leaders.

“Our goal here, above all else, is to create a system that protects kids and gives them help when they need it,” Goodwin said. “There needs to be a clear understanding of when schools should contact DCYF about suspected abuse.”

City leaders have been calling for lawmakers to change the law for much of the school year, in part because more than 70 school employees were placed on paid administrative leave between September and December for allegedly touching students inappropriately or failing to notify DCYF. No one has been charged with a crime.

Superintendent Chris Maher blamed the spike in employees being placed on leave on a DCYF policy that required the agency be contacted about abuse allegations prior to the school department conducting its own investigation. Maher said that led the district to place people on leave until DCYF cleared them of wrongdoing, but he is now reviewing every incident himself to determine whether the employees need to be removed from the school.

Maher’s revised policy has led to a steep decrease in employees being placed on leave, but the district still placed 12 employees on leave between December and February.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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