High court weighs validity of teacher testimony in child abuse cases

Child Welfare
by Laura Edghill
Posted 3/03/15, 03:50 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday regarding statements children make to teachers and other non-law enforcement agents about abuse they have experienced. Depending on the high court’s ruling, prosecutors of these sensitive cases could face increased restrictions regarding which statements they can introduce in court.

Teachers, social workers, and healthcare professionals are some of the most frequent first reporters of suspected child abuse, and according to the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway, together they make up more than one-third of initial abuse reports.

In the case before the Supreme Court, Ohio v. Clark, the statements in question originated from interviews in 2010 that a preschool teacher had with one of her 3-year-old students. The teacher noticed bruises and marks on the boy’s face and questioned him about them. He told his teacher a man named Darius Clark had caused the injuries.

Clark was indicted and later convicted of felonious assault and child endangering. During the trial, the court allowed the boy’s teachers to discuss his statements. But the boy was deemed “incompetent” to testify himself, so he did not take the stand.

Clark appealed the conviction and was victorious at both the state appeals court level, as well as with the Ohio Supreme Court. Both found that in instances where they are legally bound to report possible cases of abuse, teachers are in the same position as law enforcement officials. As such, their testimony counts as official evidence and is subject to laws governing evidence, including the “Confrontation Clause” of 6th Amendment, which states “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” In the current Supreme Court case, Clark contends the trial court violated his 6th Amendment right to confront his accuser by allowing the teachers’ testimony without permitting his lawyer the opportunity to question the child. 

Clark’s attorney, Jeffrey Fisher, said his client was not asking for a ban on use of children’s statements about abuse to teachers. But he insisted that the 6th Amendment allows a defendant to confront his accuser.

At least some of the justices seemed skeptical, given the circumstances of the case.

“How can there be a question of cross-examining a 3-year-old?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked.

The legal team representing the State of Ohio argued the boy’s teachers were acting in the interest of his immediate safety, and not as law enforcement officials. 

“Teachers aren’t in the business of prosecution, and they aren’t in the business of collecting evidence,” said Ilana Eisenstein, assistant solicitor general at the Department of Justice.

The Ohio team contends the statements made to the teachers should be counted as “hearsay,” rather than “evidence.” If the statements are hearsay, then there is no conflict with the 6th Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. 

Matthew Meyer, an assistant prosecuting attorney representing Ohio, said the 6th Amendment right to confront accusers applies only when government agents investigate for purposes of a criminal prosecution. If there’s no direction by police, he said it’s simply a conversation between a teacher and student.

“These are just the basic questions a teacher would ask when a student comes to school with a bruise on their face,” Meyer said.

Forty-two states filed a brief supporting Ohio. They argue that excluding the statements children make to teachers, counselors, and others who must report abuse will only shield abusers and impair the ability of states to protect vulnerable children.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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