Monday, February 6, 2012

DHS: Charges for failure to report abuse claims unheard of - Iowa

Written by Lee Hermiston

Wednesday’s arrest of the director of the Broadway Neighborhood Center for not reporting allegations of child abuse levied against a teacher at the center may be the first of its kind in Iowa, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services said.

“If it’s not the first time, it’s the first time in many years,” said DHS spokesman Roger Munns, noting employees in the agency’s central office have “quite a few years of experience.”

Sue Freeman-Murdah, 44, director of the Broadway Neighborhood Center, is accused of not reporting allegations of child abuse levied against a teacher in the Head Start Program, which she oversees. Because of her position at the center, Freeman-Murdah is considered a mandatory reporter, meaning she is required by law to report allegations of child abuse. She has worked at the center for more than 10 years.

According to a criminal complaint from Iowa City Police, the lead Head Start teacher informed Freeman-Murdah that the mother of a child enrolled in the program thought her daughter was the victim of a sexual assault. The alleged assailant was thought to be a teacher in the Head Start classroom. Police said the alleged victim was younger than 12.

The mother met with Freeman-Murdah and told her she thought the teacher had inappropriately touched her daughter and that contact raised to the level of abuse, police said. Police said the mother told Freeman-Murdah the child had repeatedly identified the teacher — who is not identified in the criminal complaint — as the perpetrator. The mother also observed injuries to her daughter, police said.

Police said Freeman-Murdah conducted her own investigation and did not contact police or the DHS. Iowa Code requires that health professionals, social workers, school employees, police officers, mental health professionals and employees of a DHS institution report allegations of abuse to a child younger than 12.

Iowa City Police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said the police department only learned about the allegations when the mother came to police on Dec. 21.

In a statement released Thursday, Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County Executive Director Brian Loring said no evidence of child abuse was discovered.

“The health and safety of children has always been, and remains, our top priority,” Loring said in the statement. “We want the community to know that the Department of Human Services investigated and found no evidence of child abuse. We have cooperated fully with law enforcement and the Department of Human Services and will continue to do so. In fairness to all the parties involved, we are avoiding further comments and will let the process run its course.”

Freeman-Murdah was arrested Wednesday afternoon, booked at the Johnson County Jail and released after about 30 minutes. She posted a $500 cash bond.

Freeman-Murdah made an initial appearance in court Thursday morning and entered a plea of not guilty. Judge Deb Minot set a bench trial for March 22. Freeman-Murdah has a right to request a jury trial — which would consist of six jurors — within 10 days. She said she did not know whether she would enter a request.

In addition to a potential sentence of up to 30 days in jail and a $625 fine, Minot warned Freeman-Murdah that her alleged actions could have “collateral consequences” with DHS. Munns said he wasn’t sure what those consequences could entail.

“Since this is so new, we haven’t crossed this particular bridge before,” he said.

Freeman-Murdah declined to comment after her appearance.

Munns said all reports of child abuse — only about half of which come from mandatory reporters — go through a central office in Des Moines. The office is staffed by about 30 child protective workers who determine if the allegation fits the definition of child abuse under Iowa law. Cases that fit that criteria are then directed to local offices stationed in each county. Munns said investigators respond within an hour for emergency situations and within 24 hours for all other reports, 365 days a year.

“This is not an entry-level job,” Munns said. “People who do this work have been around this field for years and are skilled at recognizing abuse and risk factors for future abuse. You want to prevent the child from being abused again. Obviously, the earlier you get a heads up on that, the better.”

The allegations of abuse do not have to be founded for a judge or jury to find Freeman violated the law by not reporting the alleged offense. Brotherton said the child abuse allegations remain under investigation.


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