Q: Did I hear correctly that the Legislature passed a bill that changes the standard for reporting suspected child abuse and neglect?
A: Yes. HB 3379 amends the Texas Family Code to establish and apply a “reasonable cause” standard for reporting suspected child abuse and neglect, which is a higher standard than that currently in place. This revision is intended to reduce unfounded reports, distress on children in question, costly investigations, and no-evidence prosecutions.
Longstanding state law has required professional school district employees to report suspected child abuse or neglect when the employee “has cause to believe” abuse or neglect has occurred. HB 3379 amends Section 261.101 of the Texas Family Code by establishing and applying a “reasonable cause” reporting standard, which is a higher standard than merely having any cause for suspecting abuse or neglect. See Tex. Fam. Code § 261.101 (emphasis added). Representatives Ben Leman, Keith Bell, Gary Gates, Reggie Smith, and Mayes Middleton co-authored House Bill 3379 noting that:
There are concerns that the current standard for reporting suspected child abuse or neglect, which is simply having any cause to believe reportable conduct has occurred, is overly broad and could lead to a person submitting a false report that would only distress the child in question and waste investigatory resources. Additionally, this overly broad reporting standard could also lead to a person who did not submit an initial report being charged for failing to do so even though they had no real information to indicate abuse or neglect had taken place.
H.R. Rep No. 87R 18847, (2021). Beginning on September 1, 2021, an educator must make a mandatory report of suspected child abuse or neglect within 48 hours of when the educator first has “reasonable cause” to believe abuse or neglect occurred. The penalties for violation of this statute remain the same. An educator’s failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect amounts to, at minimum, a Class A misdemeanor, and may constitute a state jail felony if prosecutors demonstrate that the educator intended to conceal the alleged abuse or neglect. See Tex. Fam. Code § 261.109. In addition, an educator’s failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect amounts to a violation of the Educators’ Code of Ethics and may result in disciplinary action by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC).
Please consult with your local school attorney if you have specific questions or seek additional information about the educators’ duty to report child abuse or neglect.