On March 2, 2015, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the case State of Ohio v. Clark, where the Ohio Supreme Court held that a teacher acts in a “dual capacity as an instructor and as an agent of the state for lawenforcement purposes” when questioning a child about suspected abuse or neglect as part of the teacher’s duty to report such abuse to local police or children’s services. A decision is expected in June in this case of first impression.
In its 2013, four-to-three decision, the Ohio Supreme Court reviewed a Cuyahoga County criminal matter involving defendant, Darius Clark (“Clark”). Clark was convicted of felonious assault, endangering children and domestic violence. He was sentenced to twenty-eight (28) years in prison. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Clark lived with his girlfriend, her three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. While the children were in his care, Clark dropped off the young boy, L.P., at his Head Start Center in Cleveland. One of L.P.’s teachers observed that his left eye appeared bloodshot and bloodstained. She asked him, “What happened?” and he replied, “I fell.” The teacher then noticed red marks on L.P.’s face. The teacher got the attention of the lead teacher who asked L.P., “Who did this? What happened to you?” L.P. seemed bewildered by the questions but eventually identified Clark as his attacker. The teacher called 696-KIDS and made a report of suspected child abuse. In response, the Cuyahoga County Department of Child and Family Services sent a social worker to the school to investigate. Clark arrived at the school while the social worker was questioning L.P. and denied responsibility for L.P.’s injuries. Clark then left with the child. The next day, a social worker located the children at the home of Clark’s mother and took them to the hospital. A physician determined that L.P. had bruising in various stages of development and abrasions consistent with having been struck by a linear object. His younger sibling had bruising, burn marks, a swollen hand, and a pattern of sores at her hairline. The physician suspected child abuse and estimated that the injuries occurred within the last three (3) weeks.
The trial court declared L.P. incompetent to testify, because of his age, but denied Clark’s motion to exclude L.P.’s out-of-court statements identifying Clark as his abuser. Seven witnesses testified regarding the statements made by L.P.: a Cleveland police detective; two social workers; the two teachers, the children’s maternal grandmother; and the children’s maternal great aunt.
Clark appealed his conviction, claiming that the introduction of L.P.’s statements, through his teachers and others, violated Clark’s constitutional right to confront witnesses against him. The appellate court found that the testimony of all seven witnesses violated the Confrontation Clause and overturned the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. The State appealed the exclusion of the teachers’ testimony. The Ohio Supreme Court found that when questioning a child about suspected abuse, as required by Ohio law, a teacher can be found to have acted as an agent of the state for law-enforcement purposes. Further, statements elicited from a child by a teacher - in the absence of an ongoing emergency and for the primary purpose of gathering information of past criminal conduct and identifying the alleged perpetrator of suspected child abuse - are not admissible in a criminal trial. The dissent pointed out the teachers here did not question L.P. at the request of law enforcement. They were merely acting to fulfill their mandatory duty to report abuse. The dissenters further argued that the majority created a “beneficial catch-22 for pedophiles and other abusers of children” and that the very people who have the expertise and opportunity to recognize child abuse – teachers – are now prohibited in Ohio from testifying about any out-of-court statements that a child makes about abuse or neglect when the child, for whatever reason, is unable to testify.