Teacher Testimony Now Admissible in Child Abuse Trials
This decision highlights the lower court’s disagreement as to whether a teacher’s duty to report child abuse could be considered as an act of law enforcement. The difference boils down to whether the teacher’s primary purpose in asking the child about the supposed abuse is to help the prosecution.
On June 25, 2015, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a teacher’s reports of child abuse based on conversations with young students can be admissible testimony, despite a defendant’s constitutional right to confront his accuser, and despite the fact that the statements are indirect.
The lower court’s disagreement from the Ohio v. Clark case brought this decision to light. In Clark, the issue was whether the teacher’s testimony of a 3 ½-year-old was admissible was made based on the case of a 3½-year-old Ohio boy whose wounds were visible to teachers at his day care center. The child had a bloodshot and bloodstained eye that initially caught the teacher’s attention, who later discovered additional bruises. Upon questioning, the child eventually said his mother’s boyfriend was to blame. The teacher reported the injuries, as required under Ohio law, leading to Clark’s arrest and conviction for child endangerment, among other crimes. Attorneys for Clark, the defendant, argued that they should get equal access to the boy before statements made to the other side are allowed in court to obtain the reliability of the child’s story.
Pursuant to the Ohio Rules of Evidence, children younger than 10 years old are incompetent to testify if they “appear incapable of receiving just impressions of the facts and transactions respecting which they are examined, or of relating them truly.” However, under Ohio Rule of Evidence 807, which allows the admission of reliable hearsay by child abuse victims, the trial court had ruled that the child the subject of this suit’s statements to his teachers bore sufficient guarantees of trustworthiness to be admitted as evidence. Still, according to USNews, Ohio’s highest court had ruled that the duty to report abuse effectively turned teachers into agents of the state for law enforcement purposes, even though no police were initially involved.
The question in the Supreme Court of the United State’s case was whether the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause prohibited prosecutors from introducing those statements when the child was not available to be cross-examined. According to FindLaw.com, the Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment states that, “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Additionally, the 14th amendment makes this clause applicable to state courts as well.
According to USA Today, Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote for the court’s majority, wrote that if a teacher’s “primary purpose” in asking about the abuse was not to help the prosecution, allowing their testimony will not violate a defendant’s constitutional rights. Moreover, Alito explained that when a police officer takes a child’s statements out of court and presents it as testimony at trial, it can violate the confrontation clause. The key difference in this case according to Alito was the child spoke to his teacher immediately after his wounds were discovered, in an emergency setting on school grounds, thereby not as preparation for courtroom testimony.
Statements from teachers’ unions have been positive after the ruling. The National Education Association represents more than 3 million teachers, making it the nation’s largest professional employee organization, and has issued a statement in support of the ruling according to the Washington Examiner, which reads:
“We are pleased the [Supreme] Court recognized what educators have long understood — namely, that mandatory reporting laws aren’t about prosecuting crimes, but are there to protect abused or neglected children and to ensure those children and their families get the help and support they deserve…Teachers aren’t cops. To confuse those two roles could have hampered educators’ ability to help their students.”
Additionally, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, also made a positive statement:
“Teachers play a big role in kids’ lives; they have a duty to act in their students’ best interests,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “Teachers have a responsibility to report suspected child abuse — to protect children — but the question in this case was whether they should carry out these duties in the same way that law enforcement officials do. The U.S. Supreme Court correctly decided that teachers’ reporting doesn’t make teachers agents of law enforcement and recognized their role as educators who are concerned about the well-being of their students.”
Ohio, along with the federal government and 42 other states, contended that an adverse ruling would make it more difficult to prosecute child abuse when the child is the only witness but cannot testify in court, according to USA Today, and additionally said that because of that, teachers should not be equated in those cases with police.
This ruling will likely make it easier for child abusers to be equated with criminal charges. Additionally, it has the benefit as serving as a barrier preventing certain victims from being faced with their abusers.
For more information about the Supreme Court’s decision, you can view the full opinion at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/13-1352_ed9l.pdf.