Colorados child abuse reporting laws should be strengthened, watchdog says

Colorado’s laws on the required reporting of suspected child abuse should be strengthened, the state’s child protection ombudsman said Wednesday in a new report that comes in the wake of 7-year-old Olivia Gant’s death by suspected medical abuse.

The state’s “outdated” and “poorly executed” mandated reporting laws should be changed to clarify the role employers play in the reporting process, to set a concrete timeline in which suspected abuse must be reported to the state and to require standardized training for all professionals who are legally obligated to report abuse, Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte recommended in the 7-page brief.

“For Colorado’s laws to be effective, and for children to be protected, the law must be clear regarding who must make a report, so that valuable information does not fall through the cracks and people who fail to report suspected child abuse may be held accountable,” the report reads.

Olivia Gant’s 2017 death highlighted longstanding “fault lines” in the state’s child abuse reporting laws, Villafuerte said in an interview. Before she died, Olivia was a longtime patient at Children’s Hospital Colorado, where authorities believe the girl’s mother, Kelly Turner, faked Olivia’s illnesses and manipulated doctors and nurses into performing unnecessary medical procedures. Turner has been charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial.

A Denver Post investigation this spring found that some doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital Colorado raised concerns that Olivia was being medically abused by her mother, but the hospital did not report their suspicions to the state’s Department of Human Services until more than a year after Olivia died, despite the state’s mandated reporting law, which requires anyone who suspects abuse to “immediately” report to law enforcement or to the state.

The medical providers at Children’s did no such thing. Instead, the hospital investigated the concerns internally, and its internal child protection team decided there was no need to report the providers’ concerns to outside authorities, the Post found. That process appeared to follow a 2016 hospital policy, which instructed employees to report abuse concerns to the hospital’s internal review team, rather than directly to outside authorities.

That’s not an uncommon approach, Villafuerte said. Many institutions, like hospitals and schools, require employees to report abuse suspicions up an internal chain of command. That sort of “institutional reporting” can help facilities keep track of the reports, provide employees time and support to make reports while on the clock, and reduce duplicate reports. But it can also cause problems and delays, Villafuerte said, particularly if a supervisor stops or discourages employees from reporting abuse suspicions, or if the internal process is cumbersome or time-consuming.

“It’s unclear what an institution’s role is,” she said. “Are they a pass-through for information, or are they an arbiter of that information? And that’s why other states have created laws. To make it clear that if you do have (an internal) process, you must guard against persuasion.”

Colorado’s current mandated reporting law requires individuals in nearly 40 professions ranging from veterinarians to pastors to report suspected abuse to the state or law enforcement.

But the law is mum on institutional reporting, which has allowed various employers to come up with a hodgepodge of internal policies for employees who attempt to report abuse. Some employees come away with the impression that reporting their personal suspicions to a supervisor fulfills their legal duty to report abuse — but that’s not clear in the law.

Institutional reporting is happening, Villafuerte said, just without any guardrails in the law for how it should be handled.

“If you look at other state laws, which I’ve done, they are very clear that to the extent an employee must report to a supervisor or head administrator, the role of the facility at that point is to support the employee, not change their mind,” she said.

Thirty-two states have procedures for institutional reporting on the books, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In nine states, mandated reporters at institutions must first directly report suspicions to the state’s child protective services, then notify their employer of the report. In another nine states, mandated reporters at institutions start by notifying the head of their institution, and that person is then required to make the report to child protective services.

In 17 states, the laws specifically make clear that “regardless of any policies within the organization, the mandatory reporter is not relieved of his or her responsibility to report,” according to the publication.

Colorado’s mandated reporting law also falls short in two other ways, Villafuerte’s report found. The law doesn’t give a definite window of time in which mandated reporters must pass their suspicions on to authorities — it just says such reports must be made “immediately,” which is open to interpretation. Other states set 24-, 36- or 48-hour windows for reporting, the brief said.

There’s also nothing in Colorado’s law that requires mandated reporters be notified of their obligations or trained on how to recognize abuse, Villafuerte said. Requiring professionals to go through a standardized, statewide training would better equip them to fulfill their obligations, she said.

“The truth is, this is not intuitive, it isn’t obvious when abuse and neglect occur,” she said. The signs and symptoms of abuse and neglect, while they can be outwardly very external, many times they are not.”

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