By Michael Fruitman
Child abuse is a one of the most heinous crimes imaginable–and it is a crime. In Virginia, according to the Department of Social Services, the numbers of reported and accepted cases of child abuse rose significantly–by about 40 percent–from 2017 to 2018:
Reported: 128,000 174,000
Accepted: 73,000 105,000
And in 2017, 46 children died as a result of abuse or neglect.
Of the different sources of reporting, only 77 and 94 cases, respectively, originated with clergy for these two years.
Virginia House Delegate Karrie Delaney (D-67th District, Fairfax, Loudoun) this past session championed a statewide effort to protect children in the Commonwealth of Virginia by introducing and passing legislation that requires members of the clergy to report child abuse and neglect to DSS. The vote was 99-0 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate before the bill was signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. Identical legislation in 2006 failed.
Before July 1, when all legislation passed in the 2019 legislative session became law, Virginia declared professionals such as teachers, counselors, and medical personnel as “mandatory reporters,” requiring them to inform authorities of suspected or known cases of child abuse and neglect. Delaney concluded that members of the clergy (ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, and duly accredited practitioners of any religious organization or denomination, usually referred to as a church or synagogue) should also be mandatory reporters and shepherded legislation in the 2019 legislative session to accomplish this.
“Members of the clergy are in a role of trust and authority and they should not be held to a different standard than every other professional whose duty it is to protect children,” says Delaney. “House Bill 1659 did exactly that.”
“I heard a large public outcry regarding the responsibility of clergy when they are made aware of child abuse, but this issue extends beyond what we are hearing in the national headlines,” says Delegate Delaney. This is illustrated by the origin of House Bill 1659, when community members came to Delaney after one’s local, standalone church failed to act on a case of child abuse. While many nationwide denominations already have internal policies, child abuse is too often hidden in places of worship where a regional office or national hierarchy may be lacking. Adding Virginia to the 27 states where clergy are already mandatory reporters provides the accountability the public demands and will protect more children.
“Members of the clergy are in a role of trust and authority and they should not be held to a different standard than every other professional whose duty it is to protect children,” says Delaney. “House Bill 1659 did exactly that.” In addition, the bill allocated enough money to hire a new call center associate.
Failure to report by the professionals categorized in the legislation may invoke civil penalties. The Department of Social Services has a hotline for this purpose: 800.552.7096 (out of state: 804.786.8536).
In recognizing that protection of our children and having their well-being at heart is the core of all faith communities, Delaney garnered multi-denominational support for her legislation, including from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Virginia Catholic Conference.
Delegate Delaney worked with both Republicans and Democrats to pass this bill in the 2019 General Assembly session. Our children now have enhanced protections in their communities.