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Ombudsman calls for improvements to mandatory child abuse reporting law

A recent high profile case put a new spotlight on who in Colorado has to report child abuse, and how that process could be improved.

DENVER — On Wednesday, the Child Protection Ombudsman (CPO) of Colorado called for several changes to the laws around reporting abuse that would make the process clearer and more efficient for mandatory reporters.

In a seven-page brief, Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte explains how the decades-old law is often confusing for the people it is supposed to guide through the process of reporting abuse.

“What I’ve seen over the years is we keep adding to the list of people required to report, but we’re not giving them the training in order to do it well,” she said.

The brief references a recent and high-profile case. Olivia Gant was only 7 years old when she died in hospice care, after years of medical treatment now believed to be unnecessary and harmful.

Her mother, Kelly Turner, is facing murder charges. Medical records show an internal debate between her caretakers at Children's Hospital Colorado, where, during the last few months of her life, some employees started to question if Gant’s situation was a case of abuse.

RELATED: Trial for mom accused of killing daughter delayed until February

Villafuerte said Gant’s case is only one example of a situation that inspired the brief, which she said was compiled after years of other cases that never made headlines, as well as numerous questions to her office from mandatory reporters in recent years.

“The citizens that call our office about mandatory obligations are good people," she said. "They want to do right by kids. The problem is they don’t always know how to do that, because they’re finding there’s not always clarity in the law itself."

CPO said the mandatory reporter law requires the professional to make the report. But Villafuerte said the current law does not prohibit agencies or organizations (such as the daycare or hospital) from developing internal processes that require employees to report abuse to a supervisor first, like a chain-of-command. 

She said that creates confusion about who is actually required to report.

“I think there is a lot of pressure on employees at a lot of different places about – they want to follow what their employers' rules are, they want to follow company practices or policies. But then they’re conflicted because they know the law requires them to pick up the phone themselves,” she said.

Villafuerte said the brief was written for child protection stakeholders and the greater community to better understand the challenges and discuss future changes to the law.

CPO makes several recommendations in the report:

• Update the law to clarify how timely reports must be made and who is responsible for reporting – individuals or institutions.

• Require employers to provide information to their employees that details their legal obligations to report suspected child abuse and provide them resources for training, including referrals to the state’s child abuse reporting training.

• Leverage existing state licensing requirements through DORA to mandate training for professionals who are mandatory reporters, including doctors, nurses and psychologists.

• Require statewide trainings to be updated and include information regarding implicit bias and other factors that cause disproportionate representation of certain groups in the child welfare system.

• Require state departments that are responsible for child safety to develop a coordinated approach to educate the state’s mandatory reporters to help establish a substantive and streamlined approach that reaches reporters across the state and across various disciplines.

RELATED: A famed hospital, a 7-year-old hospice patient, and the debate that failed to save Olivia Gant

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