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AGO 1987 No. 9 - March 17, 1987
AGO Opinion Header Image
Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington
CHILDREN‑‑CHILD ABUSE‑‑REPORTING BY SCHOOL OFFICIALS‑‑ALLEGED ABUSE BY STUDENT 

            RCW 26.44.030 does require school officials to report incidents of alleged child abuse when the alleged abuser is a fellow student. 

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March 17, 1987 

Honorable Marcus S. Gaspard
State Senator, 25th District
408 Legislative Building
Olympia, WA 98504

 Cite As:   AGO 1987 No. 9

Dear Senator Gaspard:

 By letter previously acknowledged, you requested our opinion on the following question which we paraphrase as follows:

 Does RCW 26.44.030 require school officials to report incidents of alleged child abuse when the alleged abuser is a fellow student?

 We answer in the affirmative for the reasons set forth in our analysis.

 ANALYSIS

 In providing a complete analysis of our answer, it is helpful to examine the purpose and intent of chapter 26.44 RCW, commonly known as the “Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.”  Chapter 26.44RCW was enacted in 1965.  The Legislature declared that the purpose of reporting was to provide protective services for children to prevent further abuses and safeguard their welfare.  Laws of 1965,ch. 13, § 1, p. 970.  Although these statutes have been amended several times, the goal has always been the discovery of cases of abuse and the protection of children.  State v. Fagalde, 85Wn.2d 730, 539P.2d 86 (1975).

             (orig. p. 2) In 1985, the Legislature declared:

 The children of the state of Washington are the state's greatest resource and the greatest source of wealth to the state of Washington. Children of all ages must be protected from child abuse. Governmental authorities must give the prevention, treatment, and punishment of child abuse the highest priority, and all instances of child abuse must be reported to the proper authorities who should diligently and expeditiously take appropriate action, and the child abusers must be held accountable to the people of the state for their actions.

 Laws of 1985, ch. 259, § 1, p. 887 (uncodified).

 Further, to encourage reporting of suspected child abuse, there are provisions for immunity from civil or criminal liability and for confidentiality of records.  RCW 26.44.060, .070.  Criminal sanctions may be imposed against a person who is statutorily required to report andknowingly fails to do so.  RCW 26.44.080.

             RCW 26.44.030(l) provides:

 When any practitioner, professional school personnel, registered or licensed nurse, social worker, psychologist, pharmacist, or employee of the department has reasonable cause to believe that a child or adult dependent person has suffered abuse or neglect, he shall report such incident, or cause a report to be made, to the proper law enforcement agency or to the department as provided in RCW 26.44.040. The report shall be made at the first opportunity, but in no case longer than forty‑eight hours after there is reasonable cause to believe that the child or adult has suffered abuse or neglect.

 “Child abuse or neglect” is defined as “the injury, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child by any person under circumstances which indicate that the child's health, welfare, or safety is harmed thereby.”  RCW 26.44.020(12).

 In 1982, the Legislature amended RCW 26.44.020(12) by deleting the requirement that the perpetrator of the abuse be a person legally responsible for the child's welfare such as a (orig. p. 3) parent or legal custodian.  Laws of 1982, ch. 129, § 6, p. 562.  The Legislature substituted the words “by any person,” thereby substantially broadening the definition of child abuse or neglect.  The language of the statute is the most persuasive evidence of legislative intent. Davisv. Inca CompaniaNavieraS.A., 440 F. Supp. 448 (1978).  It is clear that the Legislature intended to expand the cases of injury or abuse to a child that must be reported.

 The Legislature, however, did not define “any person” within the context of chapter 26.44RCW.  Absent a statutory definition, words of a statute must be accorded their usual and ordinary meaning.[1]  Pacific First Fed. Sav. & LoanAss’nv. State, 92 Wn.2d 402, 598P.2d 387 (1979);In re Dodge, 29Wn. App. 486, 628P.2d 1343 (1981).  According to its ordinary meaning, the term “person” includes a child.  Note also thatRCW 26.44.020(6) defines “child” or “children” as “anyperson under the age of eighteen years of age.”  Therefore, we conclude that incidents of child abuse in which the alleged perpetrator is another student or child must be reported. Such a broad interpretation is consistent with the purpose of the statute to bring to light cases of child abuse. It is then within the discretion of law enforcement agencies and the Department of Social and Health Services to take appropriate action in each case.  RCW 26.44.050.

 Your letter raised a concern that school officials do not want to be accused of “crying wolf” each time a child is hit by another student.  The definition of “child abuse or neglect” contained inRCW 26.44.020(12) sets forth the type of incidents that must be reported.  First, there must be injury, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation (as defined inRCW 26.44.020(15)), or negligent treatment or maltreatment (as defined inRCW 26.44.020(16)) of a child.  There must also be harm to the child’s health, welfare, and safety.[2]

 (orig. p. 4) In conclusion, if the incident falls within this definition of “child abuse or neglect”, it must be reported regardless of the identity or age of the perpetrator.

             We trust that the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

                                                                         Very truly yours,
                                                                         KENNETH 0. EIKENBERRY
                                                                        Attorney General 

                                                                       NOELLA HASHIMOTO
                                                                        Assistant Attorney General
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[1]   Although RCW 1.16.080 contains a general statutory definition of “person”, it is not particularly helpful in addressing this issue.

[2]   There is thus a decision to be made by the school personnel.  Although it may seem obvious, the definition of child abuse was not intended to include the typical playground argument that does not result in any injury to the child.

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