Are Healthcare Workers Agents of Law Enforcement?

Photo Credit: © Lukas Gojda/Dollar Photo Club

Photo Credit: © Lukas Gojda/Dollar Photo Club

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case from Ohio that could redefine the role of teachers and other mandated reporters, such as social workers and healthcare providers, who are required by law to report suspected child abuse and neglect. At issue in Ohio vs. Clark is whether teachers are agents of law enforcement, and if a defendant in a child abuse case therefore has the right to cross-examine an accuser based on the evidence collected.

The specifics of the case involve a three-year old boy identified in court documents as L.P. In 2010, L.P. arrived at his Head Start Center with a bloodstained eye. Two teachers asked the child about the injury, and L.P. blamed his mother’s boyfriend, Darius Clark. The teachers then fulfilled their obligation as mandated reporters by contacting Ohio’s child-welfare agency. Later, Clark was charged with felony assault and child endangerment.

At Clark’s trial, prosecutors relied upon L.P.’s statements to teachers instead of court testimony to obtain a conviction. Clark’s lawyer then won an appeal on the grounds that the defense had not been allowed to cross-examine the child about his statements to teachers.  The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s ruling, arguing that teachers’ roles as mandatory reporters make them agents of law enforcement. The legal logic is that a child’s statement to a mandated reporter is like a statement to police.

The State of Ohio disagreed with the decision of its own highest court, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in advance of a ruling that’s expected in June. As a healthcare provider and mandated reporter, are you concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court may rule that you are an agent of law enforcement, too? Will children, especially teenagers, be less inclined to be open with you if they learn that talking to a mandated reporter is like talking to the police?

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