Prudie’s horrible advice

I am a big fan of Slate‘s Dear Prudence advice column.  Emily Yoffe generally dispenses level-headed, no-nonsense advice that doesn’t condescend to her readers.  There is a dearth of common sense in American popular culture, and it’s nice to see a regular source of it.

Which is why it surprised me immensely to see her giving utterly terrible advice in her weekly live-chat this past Monday.  Her reader writes:

Q. A Teacher’s Problem: I work as a high-school teacher, and I love my job. A couple of weeks ago a student, “James,” came to school with bruises on his face. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, so I had a quiet word with him after school. He is one of the students in my class I’ve established a good rapport with and from time to time he comes for advice about his schoolwork and personal life. He told me his dad has been incredibly stressed with various work and family issues. One night James had a huge argument with his sister, and Dad lost it and hit him. From past discussions I was left with the impression that he has loving parents, and there is no indication of ongoing abuse. Based on several lengthy talks I’ve concluded that this was a one-off event by a dad under heavy pressure who now feels overwhelming guilt about what he did. Based on school policy, however, I’m meant to report this as child abuse. I can reasonably predict this will result in some serious repercussions for the entire family. (To complicate matters, James’s dad is a public figure within our local area.) My question is, do I report this? Or should I accept it as a discipline gone too far and save the family from huge consequences?

Prudie’s response:

A: This is a real moral dilemma. I am trusting that your relationship with James is good enough that he is being honest with you about what happened, and is not covering for a father who constantly abuses him. You’re right that reporting this will trigger all sorts of legal consequences. Even if the father understands that these rightly flow from his inexcusable action, the entire family may suffer terribly because of James confiding in you. If the father has been deeply chastened by his outburst and will never repeat it, getting this family in “the system” could bring unnecessary pain to all of them. In response to your questions, James could have told you he got a stick to the face during lacrosse and you’d never have been the wiser. I think you should not report this one instance, but keep your connection with James. If the father lashes out again, then you must take the steps to call him to account. I do wonder, however, if keeping this yourself could possibly put you in a precarious legal position for not following up on your obligation as a mandatory reporter. I’d love readers with expertise on these issues to weigh in.

That advice is awful.  The teacher’s obligation to report is not based on school policy.  It is almost certainly based on the law.  Nearly every state mandates that teachers report all cases of abuse, including cases where abuse is even suspected.  This teacher has no legal capacity to determine whether or not she should report, whether the abuse was a one-off, or whether the father is appropriately contrite.  All mandated reporters (myself included) must report the abuse to the appropriate authorities.  What Prudie counseled was illegal, and if the teacher followed that advice she could (and should) lose her job.

Many readers during the live-chat wrote in and told Prudie so, and by the end of the session she had back-tracked.  It was prudent (ha!) of her to solicit advice from readers with expertise, and everyone’s allowed on occasional mistake.  Again, I’m a big fan of hers.  But while it’s especially troubling that the teacher herself was unclear about her legal and professional obligations (to say nothing of her moral one), I’m also a little unsettled that Prudie would dispense such uninformed advice.  It took me all of thirty seconds to confirm that mandatory reporting is the law in almost every state (it certainly has been in all the states where I’ve been licensed).  Perhaps she doesn’t have a lot of time for Google during live interaction with her readers, but she’s got a high-profile gig where people ask her what they should do, and to me that implies a certain obligation to be somewhat informed about the correct answers to questions that are likely to be asked of her.  I’m glad she has informed readers, because otherwise a kid out there may have lost his best chance to stop being abused.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Because she explicitly included the question of legality at the end of her response, it remains good advice. She invited more knowledgable people to weigh in. They did and she corrected herself.
    It only would have been poor advice if she had missed the issue of legality altogether.

    • I disagree.

      First of all, the legal question is not an afterthought, it is the only pertinent consideration when answering the question. No matter the degree of regret Prudie (and, by extension, the teacher) may feel about the disruption a report may cause, it is mandatory that a report be filed. Any other consideration is irrelevant. This information is easily available to anyone who wants to know it, requiring almost no effort to find. Yes, it’s nice that she solicited other opinions, but the only person who is obligated to dispense knowledgeable advice in this situation is the person being paid to do so.

      Secondly, the law makes reporting mandatory for a reason. “The system” is a handy boogeyman, and I’ll certainly not argue that it isn’t full of flaws. But it exists to investigate reports of abuse thoroughly. This teacher has neither the capacity to investigate thoroughly herself nor to enforce whatever steps are necessary to correct the father’s potential for abuse. This man struck his son in the face with sufficient force to cause noticeable bruises (plural), and it absurd to me that there is any question about whether it should be reported as abuse.

      Finally, Prudie seems to give weight to numerous bits of irrelevant data. It doesn’t matter that the father is a public figure. If anything, that gives him greater access to resources that may help clear his good name. When “the system” fails, it typically does so when it engages with people who lack to resources to fight for themselves. And the father’s remorse may be genuine, but that has nothing to do with whether or not he abused his son. Many abusers feel sincere regret for having abused, but it doesn’t stop them from doing it again. Paying attention to the father’s remorse can create a falsely reassuring belief that it will prevent a repeat of the behavior, which is not a sound conclusion.

      Sorry, I still think it’s lousy advice through and through.

      • Having known someone who was literally almost ripped from her family before the age of reason, When They Weren’t At All Abusive–

        Report this now, Goddammit! Seriously, this is a nobrainer. Someone needs to raise a fucking redflag of DOOM on the guy’s head. he may just need counseling, he may have done it already himself. But people ought to know that their kid’s teacher CARES enough to put their own time on the line to help a kid.

  2. If the dad is well-connected, has money, and can make a credible demonstration that indeed this was a one-off incident, the chances of his family making it into “the system” are functionally low.

    It helps to be white, too, but affluent to the point of membership in the middle class is what counts the most.

  3. I must say that I agree with you here Doc. And not just for all the legal reasons. (And you are spot on there; aside form the very real concern of potentially putting a child at risk, flouting the legalities exposes the school to tremendous financial liabilities.)

    However, I would argue the biggest error here was not on the legal side. A Teacher’s Problem’s and Prudie’s biggest error was falling into that tempting trap that you can just tell (with very little data) who is and isn’t the kind of person who will commit domestic violence behind closed doors. A wife or child initially insisting that there is no problem is not the best indicator; nor is how the husband/father acts in public when being observed. Which is not to say that you must tar and feather anyone who you think might be guilty of doing so; there is a reason a teacher is required to report it to authorities that have an expertise in these matters.

    (Also, fwiw, from someone literally knowing almost none of the facts, as circumstantial evidence goes “bruises on his face” for a fight with his sister is pretty red-fleg waving.)

  4. I suppose our perceptions and biases factor into our opinions. In my case, my faith in the justness and skills of “the system” are pretty low.

    In the final analysis, we only can control our own actions. The end consequence of our actions is very much on our shoulders. Every action we take has consequences- reporting it, not reporting it; intervening, not intervening.

    Reporting it, then shrugging off the end result is as morally reprehensible as shrugging off obvious abuse. Its the same line of thinking that bureaucrats use when an obvious clusterfuck happens, and their response is only “I followed procedure”.

    • Not to be as in-your-face as this comment is going to sound, but…

      In what universe is reporting potential child abuse as is required by law just “shrugging off the results of our actions,” and deciding to sit on that information taking some kind of non-bureaucratic action?

      • Your comment is taken in the spirit intended;
        Every action we take leads to consequences; reporting it leads to a chain of events with outcomes; not reporting it does as well.

        My main critique is in the concept of “zero tolerance” reporting- that we strip away discernment and judgement from the person who reports it.

        My concerns are based on two factors-
        One, that giving people who falsely report blanket immunity, yet punishing them for not reporting, only encourages “accuse first, ask questions later”.

        Second, the system is so heavily tilted against those who aren’t able to defend themself that in many cases, an accusation is as good as conviction.

        • I’ll start with the second point, and absolutely agree that people can be victimized by the child protective system, particularly the ones who lack the wherewithal to defend themselves. No argument here.

          To me, that’s an argument to fund the system well, to staff it fully, to keep its decisions transparent to the greatest degree possible, to exercise appropriate oversight and to give those who are accused easy access to a fair appeals process. It is not an argument to empower individuals to make judgment calls based upon incomplete or biased information. Using the above example, there are numerous bright red flags that cry out for this to be investigated further, but this teacher is inclined not to report it. She is simply not in a position to make that call (and neither would I be), and a system of mandatory reporting removes the delusion that one is.

        • The boy’s father allegedly hit him in the face hard enough to leave a bruise. If that’s true, he’s a already criminal. Let the criminal justice system decide whether he’s guilty, whether he’s a repeat offender, and what his recidivism risk is.

          Nobody knows whether he’s going to do it again, but assuming he has already hit his own child in the face, he deserves to be punished.

    • There is nothing to say that reporting the abuse is all the teacher can do. But reporting it is something she must do. It is the minimum obligation, and a responsibility that cannot be avoided.

      And while I am no great fan of “the system,” I’ve met enough people who work within it to believe them to be generally committed to the children placed under their care. It’s not perfect, neither is it wholly broken down.

    • their response is only “I followed procedure”.

      To ask people to do more than follow procedure is essentially to call for some measure of vigilantism. Bear in mind that not every individual will evaluate a given situation the same way or even in a way that most of us would consider reasonable.

      There’s a constant tension between codified rules and individual discretion, and whenever people see a failure on one side they’re apt to call for the needle to be moved the other direction. But both sides have their problems — laws can’t possibly cover every situation in the best possible way, but there will always be people with poor or questionable judgment.

  5. Long ago, when my children were tiny, a rumor started about domestic abuse in my own home. It started in church with an idle remark my wife made at the time. I was confronted by one of the deacons the next Sunday at church.

    I arranged a meeting with the pastor, several of the deacons and called the police department, who also sent a representative from the Department of Family Services. I said “Let’s get to the bottom of this, as soon as possible. These charges are false but simply must be investigated immediately. What has been said, who said it, let the process commence at once, there’s no time to waste, including taking me into custody if necessary.”

    My children were obliged to go in for a medical examination, terribly traumatic for everyone involved. Though I wasn’t arrested, I was under investigation for several months. The rumormonger was sussed out and obliged to apologize to my family in front of the congregation.

    There was no ethical dilemma for me as a father and the accused.

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