Regulations with regard to mandatory child abuse reporting are more effective in Tennessee than in many other state. Tennessee law regarding child abuse reporting mandates that any person having knowledge of or called upon to render aid to any child who is suffering from or has sustained any wound, injury, disability, or physical or mental condition which is of such a nature as to reasonably indicate that it has been caused by brutality, abuse or neglect or which on the basis of available information reasonably appears to have been caused by brutality, abuse or neglect, shall report such harm immediately. Any person with knowledge of such harm shall report it by telephone or otherwise to the judge having juvenile jurisdiction or to the concerned department, or to the sheriff, or to the chief law enforcement official.[i]
Tennessee law also deals in detail about what constitutes abuse. “Abuse” exists when a person under the age of eighteen (18) is suffering from, has sustained, or may be in immediate danger of suffering from or sustaining a wound, injury, disability or physical or mental condition caused by brutality, neglect or other actions or inactions of a parent, relative, guardian or caretaker. [ii] Furthermore, an abuser is defined as an adult or an older child, provided the child is four years older than the victim.
There are four types of child abuse which are reportable. Such abuses are neglect, physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Neglect occurs when a parent or caretaker allows a child to experience avoidable suffering or fails to provide basic essentials for physical, social, and educational development.[iii]
Physical abuse is defined as a person deliberately and intentionally using bodily harm (violent battery with weapon like knife or belt, burning, choking, fracturing bones, and other non-accidental injuries). Physical abuse also happens when a person endangers a child’s health, welfare, and safety through negligence (withholding food, medical care etc).
Sexual abuse is defined as any form of sexual contact or exploitation in which a child is being used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator.
Mental abuse occurs when a person exposes a child to spoken and/or unspoken violence or emotional cruelty (deprived of parental affection, education withheld, locked in confined spaces, forced to drug abuse, sent messages child is worthless, unloved, undeserving of care). All these elements are difficult to prove. Moreover the persons who are subject to all these abuses must be reasonably presumed to be less than eighteen (18) years of age.[iv]
The law requires every person knowledgeable about child abuse to make mandatory reports. Mandatory reporters are legally required to report known or reasonably suspected cases of child abuse, and a person may face criminal penalties (normally a misdemeanor) for failing to do so. [v]
Any person knowing of such abuses must report to the judge having juvenile jurisdiction, or the county office of the Department of Children’s Services, or the sheriff or chief law enforcement officer where the child resides. [vi]
Moreover, Tennessee law provides immunity from liability for persons who in good faith report suspected instances of child abuse or neglect under the reporting laws. Immunity statutes protect reporters from civil or criminal liability that they might otherwise incur. This protection is extended to both mandatory and voluntary reporters.[vii] If any person reports any harm in good faith as required by the reporting law, then that person shall not be liable in any civil or criminal action that is based solely upon: Firstly, the person’s decision to report what the person believed to be harm; Secondly, the person’s belief that reporting such harm was required by law; or Thirdly, the fact that a report of harm was made. [viii] Persons who are alleged perpetrators of a suspected abuse or neglect are specifically not provided immunity from prosecution in Tennessee.[ix]
Tennessee law does not provide any type of evidentiary privileges such as, husband-wife privilege, the psychiatrist-patient privilege, the psychologist-patient privilege for excluding evidence regarding harm or the cause of harm to a child in any dependency and neglect proceeding resulting from a report of such harm or a criminal prosecution for severe child abuse. [x]
Additionally, ministers are mandatory reporters in Tennessee because “any person” is a mandatory reporter of child abuse. No clergy-penitent privilege statute or rule specifies that the privileged nature of a communication exempts a minister from complying with child abuse reporting requirements.
[i] Tenn. Code § 37-1-403
[ii] Tenn. Code § 37-1-102
[iii] Tenn. Code § 37-1-406
[iv] Tenn. Code § 37-1-401
[v] Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-403.
[vi] Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-403.
[vii] Mandatory reporters are persons who are required to report; voluntary reporters are not required to report but may choose to report.
[viii] Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-410.
[x] Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-411.