Some still unclear on Freeman-Murdah's legal responsibility in failure to report

BY BETH BRATSOS | MAY 10, 2012 6:30 AM

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During the second day of a trial involving the alleged failure of a mandatory reporter to fulfill her duties in a sexual-abuse case, several testimonies attested as to whether or not Susan Freeman-Murdah legally should have reported the accusation.

Freeman-Murdah, the director of the Broadway Neighborhood Center, was informed by a teacher with the center's Headstart program of an alleged sexual abuse by another teacher. The alleged incident was reported by the mother whose child was in the program.

Freeman-Murdah was charged Feb. 1 after failing to report the alleged incident to the Department of Human Services within the required 24 hour period.

Amy Howell, a child-protection worker at the Department of Human Services, said she believed a mandatory reporter is required to report an incident when there is an allegation of some sort of abuse.

"My review is that if you have a concern or an allegation … that would be something to report," she said.

But both 6th District Judge Stephen Gerard and defense attorney Leon Spies said allegations from a concerned parent may not necessitate a report to Human Services because the law states a mandatory reporter should report the incident if he or she reasonably believes abuse occurred.

Part of Howell's testimony was unable to be heard by the court due to her request to abide by Human Services policies regarding disclosure of details involving a specific child sexual-abuse case.

She later confirmed a mandatory reporter does not need to provide proof or validate that abuse had occurred, because that is the responsibility of Human Services and law enforcement officials.

Heidi Brown, who inspects childcare centers through Human Services and worked with Howell throughout the investigation of the case, said she checked Broadway Center's mandatory reporting policies and procedures during one of her inspections of the center.

"I found they were very thorough, detailed and available to staff," she said.

According to Iowa law, mandatory reporters must make a report within 24 hours "if they reasonably believe child abuse had occurred," she said. The policy is required to give details about indicators of child abuse, she said.

During Iowa City police Detective Kevin Bailey's investigation of the case, he met with Colleen Varney, an assistant teacher in the Headstart program who was accused of the alleged sexual abuse. Bailey reportedly told Freeman-Murdah he did not find sufficient reason to believe Varney had sexually abused the child.

Spies asked Bailey why he didn't tell Freeman-Murdah his plans to charge her with failure to report in January following the officer's meeting with Varney earlier in the month.

"I have to maintain a rapport," said Bailey, and he said he was still in the process of interrogating Freeman-Murdah's staff.

Spies then pointed out a comment Bailey made to a county attorney about his decision to charge Freeman-Murdah, expressing concern it might create a press nightmare and that she is well-known by the black community.

"Yes," Bailey told Spies. "But that was a small snippet of our conversation."

Bailey later admitted his comment was insensitive, and he regretted saying it. During direct examination, he had said he and Freeman-Murdah had a good professional relationship and knew each other for years.

Bailey later said his decision to charge Freeman-Murdah was not out of personal dislike for her or her work in the Broadway Center community.

The trial continues today where the court is expected to hear from the final defense witnesses, including Freeman-Murdah's testimony on her own character. The jury is expected to return with a verdict today or Friday.

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