Sherri Irvis-Hill

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Trainer Sherri Irvis-Hill shares feedback with program participants at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Anyone who suspects child abuse can report it.

In Pennsylvania, some people have a strict legal obligation to do so. And navigating what that entails can be a confusing proposition.

A recent event at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair presented a clearer picture for a group of participants whose professional or volunteer activities involve close proximity to youngsters.

Dauphin County-based Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance offers “Train the Trainer” programs throughout the state, providing members of organizations with information they can take back to their colleagues to help bring them up to speed.

“The mandated reporter training really is for those who are required by law to report suspected child abuse,” Haven Evans, the alliance’s director of training, explained during the Westminster program. “It was expanded at the end of 2014 to include really anyone who works or volunteers with children.”

In fact, the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law lists 16 categories of individuals who must report suspected abuse or face criminal charges. The categories vary from child-care workers and school employees to medical and public safety officials and, to emphasize the stakes, include medical examiners, coroners and funeral directors.

“We really look through the Child Protective Services Law and say, how is child abuse defined?” Evans said. “What does the law say about mandated reporters? At what point do they suspect abuse? Where’s that line of concerns? And where do those concerns rise to the level of suspected abuse where they’re required to report? What happens when you fail to report?”

As for the latter, if a mandated reporter knows there is a reasonable cause to suspect abuse and does not act, the penalty could be misdemeanor and/or felony charges, and perhaps jail time.

Evans’ organization, which has offered training on the subject for more than 20 years, provides support to participants as they share information with their organizations.

“If questions come up during their trainings that they’re not sure to answer, or clarifications that they need, they can come back to PFSA,” she said. “We can either provide that clarification or we can submit it to the state for a response.”

The two days of “Train the Trainer” at Westminster included the opportunity for participants to conduct practice informational sessions. Longtime state-level trainer Sherri Irvis-Hill, supervisor of the Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children and Youth and Families Southeast Regional Office in Philadelphia, offered uniformly complimentary critiques of the presentations.

Particularly effective, she said, is the use of scenarios to set up discussions of what would qualify as something worthy of reporting.

“I think stories bring home the definition, make it real,” she asserted. “There’s enough going on every day that you can pull for stories.”

The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance’s training manual for mandated reporters includes some examples that may or may not be based on actual incidents. For example:

“There is a strained relationship between a father and his 15-year-old daughter. The father has set 11 p.m. as the curfew for his daughter. The daughter returns home at 1 a.m., which is the third time in the past two weeks that she has missed the curfew. After each incident, the emotions between the father and daughter have been escalating.

“This time, the father has been drinking, and he is enraged by his daughter’s late return. After a period of heated verbal exchange, the father chases his daughter but cannot catch her. In desperation, he picks up a chair and hurls it at her, narrowly missing her head. The legs of the chair were implanted in the drywall.”

The Westminster attendees agreed that, although the girl was not injured in the scenario, reporting what happened as child abuse would be warranted.

Irvis-Hill gave one piece of advice that served as an prevailing message for “Train the Trainer.”

“Tell your participants as mandated reporters, simply: If they suspect, then they’re supposed to report.”

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Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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