Doing the right thing

Elliott Smart
Plumas County Department of Social Services

I, like many of you, read the headlines and follow the breaking news events that seem to be standard fare for our information rich society. And in doing so, I sometimes will find that my professional self gets wrapped into thoughts about how things can go so wrong; in particular how so many adults could have failed vulnerable children. I am, of course, referring to the events at Penn State.

A person that I rely on for advice a bit more than occasionally reminds me periodically that much of life’s difficulties that arise from bad choices can be overcome by simply doing the right thing. When the circumstance of making a choice about options confronts us, we can step back and ask, “What’s the right thing to do?” Following that “Do the right thing” path can frequently (not always) place us in a position where several years downstream we or others don’t look back and say, “Why in the world did you do (or not do) that?”

A simple example comes to mind about hitting a parked car in the lot at the mall. What is the right thing to do? Of course, it’s to leave a note on the windshield with your name and phone number letting the owner of the car you hit know that you hit them and how to get in touch with you. A friend of mine owns a camper trailer. He was parked at a large chain store and came out to find that someone had apparently side swiped his camper trailer, damaging an access door and leaving a two-foot stripe where the offending car’s bumper dragged along the side of the trailer. No note. Wrong choice.

So when I read about all of the fallout that has accompanied the scandal associated with Penn State, its coach, vice president and others as a product of some of them meeting only the minimal level of reporting their suspicions and observations while others apparently did nothing at all, I have to go back to my good friend’s advice: “What’s the right thing to do?”

When it comes to protecting vulnerable children the answer is that you can’t do too much. In California we have mandatory reporting laws and mandatory reporters. The mandatory reporters represent an array of professional and other folks who are likely to have regular contact with children. In California, those individuals don’t have a choice: If they suspect a child has been abused or neglected they are required by law to report their concerns to their county child welfare agency. In Plumas County, that’s us, the Department of Social Services.

But really, since when does it take a law to cause people to do the right thing? Under any circumstance the right thing for anyone to do if they suspect that a vulnerable child is being abused is to report their suspicions or make sure their suspicions get reported to Child Protective Services (CPS).

What went so critically wrong with the Penn State matter was that, apparently, folks stopped at the minimum, or worse, did nothing. Wrong choice.

There were suspicions that vulnerable children were being victimized. The right thing to do is to not stop at the minimum (handing it off to someone else). The reporter must surely ask the recipients of the report what they intend to do or what they have done. And it is perfectly moral and right to say: “Look, if you don’t act on this right now I am going to by calling CPS myself.” That is the right thing to do. And by the accounts given so far, that is apparently what did not happen at Penn State.

Every once in a while I hear folks express a concern that goes something like: “Well, I called CPS and they didn’t do anything.”

The answer I always give to that concern is that CPS can’t tell you if we did anything or what we did. That is because confidentiality rules prevent us from talking about what we do to anyone, even the person who reported to us. But I feel very confident in saying that we never do “nothing.” We could be visiting the child at school, or at home … or talking to the parents or making a home visit. But we don’t do “nothing.” So, if not reporting concerns or suspicions about child abuse is because the reporter doesn’t think CPS will do anything, it’s again, a wrong choice.

Not taking action and not following up can wind up failing children. Who knows what happened at Penn State, but the reports seem to indicate that somehow a few people misplaced their priorities. And, right now, if reports turn out to be true the failure was evidently profound. Irrespective of how this turns out, it appears that no one reported their suspicions (whether they ultimately turn out to be true or not) to the local Child Welfare Agency. And that was the wrong choice.

The last thing I or my staff (or most of you) ever want to see is a child victimized or other children victimized because one or two adults didn’t do the right thing.


Editor’s note: You may reach Child Protective Services through Plumas County Department of Social Services at 283-6350.

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