BY LILY REAVIS ’21
Mandatory reporting laws exist with the best interests of sexual assault survivors in mind, but they often end up perpetuating trauma, especially for young victims. The government places minimal trust in young adults and complicates their situation without consideration of their personal requests and needs.
Public and private school teachers, physicians, police officers, social workers and adults in several other lines of work are mandatory reporters of sexual assault. According to Massachusetts state law, reporters only need a “mere suspicion” of misconduct in order to immediately send a case of assault to the police. These reports are usually filed without the victim’s confirmation of abuse — much less the name of the abuser.
Often times, assaults on young people take place at work or home. This presents severe complications with mandatory reporting laws, as they may result in retaliatory abuse. If a young person is abused by their parent, and that parent is notified of an investigation, the danger of the situation could dramatically escalate when the child is left alone with them. If law enforcement is unaware of who the abuser is, the victim has a high chance of being left alone with them, as 93 percent of sexual assaults on children are committed by acquaintances or family members, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
Young victims of sexual assault should be able to decide whether or not to notify the police, but still receive treatment and resources after a sexual assault is reported. Mandatory reporters should report first to mental health professionals, and then to police only if the victim consents to involving the law.
If a young sexual assault survivor turns to a trusted adult to disclose an assault, they are legally required to involve the police, which results in lower reporting rates from young victims. It also negatively affects the adults who truly wish to help, as they might be forced to break the bond of trust between themselves and the victim.
RAINN reports that females between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault. Even though every state differs slightly in its consent laws, most of the United States recognizes 16 as the age of consent, meaning that, at 16, young people can legally consent to sexual activity with other consenting individuals. If the government trusts these young people to make that decision — as they should — why doesn’t it think that people of the same age should be allowed to get help after being assaulted without being forced to legally pursue their attacker? The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) cites “Did not want to get offender in trouble with law” as one of the main reasons for not reporting sexual assault. If the mandatory reporting system was organized differently, it would result in far greater reporting rates.
Mandatory reporting laws should still exist, but should be altered to allow young victims to make the decisions about who to inform about their sexual assault. Experiencing assault is a hugely emotional and turbulent experience, and victims need to be able to process it in their own time, which includes deciding if and when to report the assault to law enforcement. Young victims deserve access to mental health support without being forced to pursue a legal path.
If the protocol surrounding mandatory reporting focused more on victims and less on their abusers, more survivors would be willing and able to report their assault.