Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Allegations and investigations

Someone purporting to be a "victim advocate" for DSS wrote to the Arlington (MA) email list with the surname and street name of a "dad" allegedly being investigated for sexual abuse of his children. The writer asserted that s/he had sent the email "OFFLIST" to someone who had asked to be "updated".

The email prompted a flurry of queries and complaints including why the name wasn't on the sex offender notifications that the police department sends out, why the original poster would disclose the information and defending the privacy of the affected family.

Though I was trying to stay away from email other than actual work today, I couldn't resist commenting.

Here is essentially what I wrote to explain the differences between the sex offender info that police departments report to child-involved organizations and the allegations that the original writer said were being "investigated" by DSS:

What was reported on this list is not on the offenders list a daycare provider gets from the APD because the list is of registered sex offenders -- which occurs after conviction of certain "sex crimes" and the posts were about an accused dad, being investigated by the Department of Social Services (DSS).

It doesn't make me question the poster's motives but whether s/he understands the confidential nature of DSS's investigations (even IF s/he only intended to inform one "OFFLIST" correspondent who "asked to be updated").

An allegation that comes to DSS's attention is a VERY FAR cry from being about a "sex offender" who has to register and who would thus be on the list that day care providers and others who provide services to children get from the local police.

Certain professionals are required by law to report and DSS is required to "investigate" whenever there is "reasonable cause to believe that a child under the age of eighteen years is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child's health or welfare including sexual abuse, or from neglect, including malnutrition, or who is determined to be physically dependent upon an addictive drug at birth". [Mass. Gen. Laws chapter 119, section 51A; see also the Web Resources page of my website.]

I could go on with 30 years worth of anecdotes, regulations and court cases that explain, limit or expand upon what that means and how different it may be from a general public understanding.

Instead, I'll just summarize by saying that "mandated reporters" are often told to err on the side of caution and report even the slightest suspicion; to let the investigation process sort it out. But then DSS is cut a whole lot of slack to not actually conduct any real investigation (and just conclude that if a "mandated reporter" decided to make a report, then it should be "supported") because the law requires them to complete their investigations in 10 days (24 hours if an emergency). (See also my Boston Globe LTE of June 1, 2007 or my blog post about it.)

A large part of my practice is devoted to representing families when DSS seeks to intervene. Feel free to post comments here about your experiences. If you are seeking legal advice, however, remember that this blog is not private and you should contact my office to discuss scheduling a consultation.

1 comment:

MLR said...

In a very interesting turn of events, someone posted to the list saying s/he was the person who posed as a DSS employee and outed the allegedly abusive dad under investigation. S/he says now that s/he was the one who reported "an unsafe situation" to DSS and was concerned that it was not taken seriously; so s/he just wanted to help folks keep their kids safe.

S/he says s/he didn't mean to harm anyone. S/he did though harm the privacy of the family who was allegedly being investigated and may have committed a crime.

DSS reporting law says "Any person who permits any information in the files to be released to persons or agencies other than those specified in this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars or by imprisonment for not more than two and one half years, or both." http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/119-51e.htm

It does not seem to me that one has to be an employee of DSS for that to apply.

It would appear to be the case though that DSS, the family whose information was reported or law enforcement would have to be the one to bring that case.

Hmm, now I wonder if this was all about the item in the Arlington police blotter a week or two ago about a man walking down the street without a shirt with a pre-teen girl. The blurb in the Arlington Advocate said the police investigated, found that the man was the child's father and that nothing was wrong.

I wondered at the time why someone would report that to anyone -- men go around barechested all the time. In New York State a woman just recently won a damage award for false arrest because NYS's highest court said that it cannot be a crime for even women to be barechested in public.

Anyway, DSS taks so much seriously that it shouldn't that it's amazing to me that there is a reporter out there who didn't think they took a safety allegation seriously enough.