(Image by Bettman/CORBIS) – Lunch at 800 feet only seems normal if you are used to it.

I recently took a phone call from an individual who wanted to learn about the laws related to the emancipation of a minor.  This person would not identify herself, but described herself as a “case worker” who was calling for a family friend who wished to remain anonymous: a fifteen year old girl who wanted to become emancipated from her parents due to what she described to the case worker as abusive conditions. 

My immediate response was to ask whether the police or Children and Youth Services had been called.  The caller did not know, but did not think so.  Since the caller was a “case worker” who described working with pregnant teens and “at risk” kids, my next question was simple: if there is abuse, don’t you have a duty to report the case to CYS and the police?

Pennsylvania’s laws for mandatory reporting can be found under 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6311, which is the statute controlling Child Protective Services.  Section 6211(a) broadly states that anyone who comes in contact with children “in the course of their employment, occupation or practice of a profession shall report or cause a report to be made…when the person has reasonable cause to suspect…that the child under the care, supervision, guidance or training of that person is a victim of child abuse.” 

This section identifies the basic procedure for mandatory reporters to bring allegations of abuse to the attention of Child Protective Services.  Not surprisingly, this section of Pennsylvania’s code received quite a lot of attention in the midst of the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal and criminal case.    

The caseworker’s response to my question was slow and contemplative: “Yeah. I guess I do have an obligation to report.”  This was clearly the first time she had put her friend’s situation into the context of her profession.  When it comes to deeply personal issues such as abuse, divorce, or addiction, the personal and professional line can be easily blurred and it made me wonder whether she “missed” connecting her friend’s personal experience with her job’s duties was due to the context of how it was presented.  Had this situation been presented to her at an intake session with a teen, the case worker would have likely seen the abuse and notified the authorities.  When the facts were taken out of that context and she was addressing them as a friend with personal knowledge of all the people involved, her judgment clouded and her professional instincts were not triggered.

Most any job eventually desensitizes a person to the unusual circumstances of their profession.  What is strange and fascinating to one person is the job description someone else finds routine.  Someone free climbs a tower at 1,700 feet to change a light bulb; the Louisville basketball player who suffered the terrible broken leg last week was a shocking sight, but I bet that was not the first – or worst – open fracture of a leg his orthopedic surgeon has seen in his career.  A client’s divorce will always be the worst one they can experience, but often the attorney has had to deal with even more difficult facts.

In this instance, the social worker who deals with kids in broken homes, addiction, teen pregnancy and bullying may not view her abused friend as being someone to whom she has a duty to report this to the authorities.  She tried to be a friend, instead, and called an attorney.  This is not an excuse for the case worker, but it could indicate a loss of perspective of what is normal and where her duty to report begins and ends under Pennsylvania law.

My call with the case worker was short; perhaps no more than a minute.  I would like to think she hung up with me and immediately called CYS; possibly the police department.  Hopefully not another attorney to ask about Pennsylvania’s emancipation laws.