The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday granted review of a case involving statements by children to teachers and others required by law to report suspected child abuse.
Acting a few days before the formal start of their new term on Oct. 6, the justices accepted an appeal from the state of Ohio raising two questions: Does a requirement that an individual report child abuse make that person a law-enforcement agent for purposes of the rights of the accused abuser to confront the witnesses against him or her? Does a child’s statements to a teacher about suspected abuse amount to “testimony” that is also subject to the protections of the U.S. Constitution’s confrontation clause?
The case is potentially important for teachers and law-enforcement officials across the nation because every state has some form of mandatory-reporting obligation for suspected child abuse, and lower courts have reached conflicting decisions about when statements to teachers are eligible for use at trial.
The case of Ohio v. Clark (Case No. 13-1352) involves a Cleveland man, Darius Clark, who began living with his girlfriend and her two young children in 2008. One day in 2010, after caring for the children the night before, Clark dropped off the woman’s 3-year-old son, identified in court papers as L.P., at a Head Start center.
One of L.P.'s teachers, Ramona Whitley, noticed that his left eye appeared bloodshot and bloodstained. The teacher asked, “What happened?” The boy at first said nothing but told the teacher, “I fell.”
“How did you fall and hurt your face?” the teacher pressed. “I fell down,” L.P. said.
The teacher looked at the boy’s face in better light and saw what she described as “red marks, like whips of some sort.” When another teacher, Debra Jones, asked L.P., “Who did this to you?,” the boy replied several times, “Dee,” referring to Clark.
The school reported the incident to a state child-abuse hotline, and Clark was investigated and charged with felony assault of L.P., felonious assault of the other child, and counts of endangering children and domestic violence.
A state trial court found L.P. unfit to testify at Clark’s trial after the boy gave inconsistent statements at a pretrial hearing. But the court permitted the teachers and other adult witnesses to testify about L.P.'s hearsay statements to them about who caused his injuries. Clark was convicted on all but one charge and was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
A midlevel state appellate reversed the conviction, ruling that the testimony from the teachers about L.P.'s statements violated Clark’s right to confront witnesses against him.
The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court, ruling last year that the two Head Start teachers were agents of law enforcement because Ohio law imposes a duty on all school officers and employees, including administrators and employees of child day-care centers, to report actual or suspected child abuse or neglect.
While “the primary purpose of reporting is to facilitate the protection of abused and neglected children rather than to punish those who maltreat them,” the state high court said, “it is clear that the General Assembly considered identification and/or prosecution of the perpetrator to be a necessary and appropriate adjunct in providing such protection, especially in the institutional setting.”
Thus, the court said, when teachers suspect and investigate child abuse “with a primary purpose of identifying the perpetrator” under the mandatory-reporting statute, “any statements obtained are testimonial for purposes of the confrontation clause.”
The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to help clarify when statements to non-law-enforcement personnel implicate the confrontation clause if they are used at a trial. Second, the state said the Ohio Supreme Court ruling conflicted with those of the highest courts of several other states on statements to teachers about possible abuse.
The state said all 50 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory child-abuse-reporting standards imposing obligations on educators and certain others.
“Child abuse tragically remains all too common, and so criminal prosecutions for child abuse and neglect also remain all too common,” the state said, so the issues presented by the case will continue to arise.
Clark’s lawyers in the Cuyahoga County public defender’s office filed a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to take the case, arguing that it was not the best vehicle to decide the issues.
But on Oct. 2, the justices added the Ohio case and 10 others to their docket for the new term.
The case will likely be argued in January or February.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.