Pierce County Teacher Penalized for Refusing to Report Her Husband to Authorities

State of Washington v. James-Buhl (2017)
April 25, 2017

Tanya James-Buhl, a Pierce County, Washington junior high school teacher, was charged with three counts of failure to comply with the mandatory reporting law because she did not report that her daughters told her their stepfather (Ms. James-Buhl’s husband) had touched them inappropriately.

A judge dismissed the charges against Ms. James-Buhl before trial. The judge found that teachers’ mandatory duty to report under the law only applies to instances of child abuse or neglect that teachers encounter in the context of their employment. Since the junior high teacher learned about her husband’s alleged improper actions toward her daughters (who were not students at her school) at home, the law did not apply.

The State appealed this ruling, and the case went before the Washington Court of Appeals, Division II. The State argued that whenever a teacher has reasonable cause to believe a child is being abused, that teacher has a mandatory duty under RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) to report that information to law enforcement, even if the information was gained outside the scope of his or her employment.

What Does the Mandatory Reporting Law Actually Require of Teachers?

Before issuing a ruling in this case, the appellate court had to determine what the text of the mandatory reporting law required of a teacher in Ms. James-Buhl’s situation. The law’s text reads

when any . . . professional school personnel . . . has reasonable cause to believe that a child has suffered abuse or neglect, he or she shall report such incident, or cause a report to be made, to the proper law enforcement agency or to the department.

The text does not explicitly say whether this requirement is limited to the course of a teacher’s employment.

Reading through the statute as a whole, the court noted that other subsections (detailing duties of other types of official personnel) did contain express limitations to course of employment. The court concluded that because the legislature included these express limitations in other subsections, but not in the mandatory reporting law for teachers, it meant for teachers’ reporting duties to extend beyond the scope of their employment. If the legislature had intended a course of employment limitation for teachers, it would have written it into the law, as it did elsewhere.

After this analysis, the appeals court held that the plain language of the mandatory reporting law, considered in context, did not limit a teacher’s reporting duty to information obtained in the course of his or her employment. The law requires teachers to report child abuse or neglect information learned in any situation.

A Difficult Choice for Ms. James-Buhl

The appellate court’s interpretation of the mandatory reporting law meant that at the time Ms. James-Buhl’s daughters reported her husband’s inappropriate touching, she was required (as a professional teacher) to give this information to authorities. The appeals court also declined to consider Ms. James-Buhl’s defense: that her duty to report a reasonable belief of child abuse was not triggered here because her daughters’ reports did not constitute a reasonable cause for Ms. James-Buhl to believe they were abused. As a result, the charges against her were reinstated, and her case was reset for trial.*

The decision brings to mind totalitarian regimes, including the two that bestrode much of the world in the 20th century. Such governments recruit children to inform on their parents. Making it a crime for a wife not to inform on her husband is similar. Here, the wife is also the mother of the alleged victims, a feature that makes her situation less sympathetic. But the rule would be the same for a wife whose husband was implicated in misconduct that did not involve the wife’s children.

It is inevitable that some people, sometimes, will have to choose between fidelity to the law and loyalty to a spouse, a parent, or a child. But a decent government make those choices as rare as possible.

Updated 12/8/17

The Washington Supreme Court accepted Ms. James-Buhl’s petition for discretionary review and oral argument has been set for February 13th. The case has not been reset for trial.