Thursday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, allowing statements children make to teachers to be used as evidence, even if the child doesn’t testify in court, is sound and will contribute to the protection of children in harm’s way.
The decision came in an Ohio case, where preschool teachers asked a 3½-year-old boy about bruises and welts they saw around his left eye. Asked who caused the injuries, the boy said his mother’s boyfriend was to blame.
The boyfriend was indicted and the teachers testified at trial about the statements the boy – who was deemed incompetent to testify in court due to his young age – and the man was convicted of felonious assault and child endangering.
Opponents said the conviction violated the Sixth Amendment’s “confrontation clause,” which provides the accused “to be confronted with the witnesses against him,” but we agree with Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, that the teachers’ principal purpose was to protect and safeguard the child, not aid criminal prosecution.
We also concur there are logical and necessary limits, and that not all reports of abuse or injury provided to people not involved in law enforcement should be admissible in court. But for teachers, who in many states (including Kentucky) are required reporters and spend nearly as much time with children as their parents, it’s sound policy.
The court’s decision also reduces potential stress on the child, who already may be dealing with the trauma of abuse, yet facing the potential of having to tell his or her story over and again to police, to hostile attorneys, to a court and jury. That kind of protection is just as important to an injured child as initially getting him or her out of the dangerous environment.
Clearly, teachers should never behave as police, investigating student reports of wrongdoing, but they have a clear and important role in informing authorities, including police and prosecutors, of reports or indications of child abuse. And depending on the age and emotional well-being of the child, being allowed to testify – in court or elsewhere – what the child told them.
For many children, teachers provide an environment of trust and safety. This ruling ensures teachers can continue to provide a safe place for children to talk about abuse or issues they may be facing at home. And that children, no matter the circumstance, have someone who can speak for them.