Across Western Kentucky, failure to report child abuse, neglect or dependency remains a rare charge.
It’s so uncommon that the standard reference for jury instructions doesn’t include an entry for it.
In early 2015, Bobbie Flood pleaded guilty to the charge, admitting she did not alert authorities about abuse perpetrated by her husband against a child.
She was sentenced to seven days in jail, and no one has been convicted of the charge in McCracken County since.
“It’s not common at all,” defense attorney Jeremy Smith said of the charge.
Smith represented McCracken County High School Principal Michael Ceglinski, who faced the same charge until it was dismissed last week.
“In my opinion, the law on this is kind of nebulous,” said Smith, who also defended Paducah pediatrician John Roach on the charge. Roach’s case was dismissed Wednesday after he completed a diversion program.
Detectives alleged Roach did not report to authorities when he saw apparent injuries on an infant that are widely known to be consistent with child abuse.
Only three other such cases have been charged in McCracken County since 2015. One is still active and two were dismissed. Marshall County has only seen two such cases — the husband and wife pair were convicted — in the same timeframe.
McCracken County Attorney Sam Clymer said an overzealous assistant in his office, who has since been terminated, made the decision to charge Ceglinski with failure to report, as well as to bring official misconduct charges against Ceglinski and Pupil Personnel Director Brian Bowland.
Clymer has spent significant time since then researching and reversing those decisions after becoming aware that the evidence and statutory language didn’t support the charges.
Clymer said if he were going to charge someone under the failure to report statute, he would need to see “clear intention of an individual to sidestep a duty.”
He found no such intention in Ceglinski’s case, particularly considering Ceglinski himself reported accusations against former teacher Daniel Edwards, who faces a charge of harassing communications.
In addition to proving the intent to avoid the reporting duty, prosecutions are further muddied by vague wording in the statute that requires “any person who knows or has reasonable cause to believe that a child is dependent, neglected or abused” to report to law enforcement, a prosecutor’s office or the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Clymer said the punctuation in that statute could be interpreted as requiring that a person report suspected abuse to all those agencies.
He said even drafting a jury instruction when Ceglinski was set for trial required significant research into civil statutes and other case law. Clymer said the issue comes up far more frequently in lawsuits and family court than criminal cases.
He previously represented the county attorney’s office in family court, which deals with dependency, neglect and abuse cases.
Often, he said, “somebody else has done something to a child, and the mother or father fails to protect.”
In family court, though, he said the focus is less on criminal prosecution and more on getting resources to help families.
“In that court, anyway, we’re not trying to punish a parent. We’re trying to educate a parent.”
Smith said many people could be confused because even different government agencies could present conflicting opinions on what triggers a duty to report.
“Nobody wants a child to be abused. Of course you want anybody and everybody to report abuse of a child,” he said.
But he called the statute “vague and overbroad.”
“The case law interpretations of it, and then what you’re told by authority figures that you’re supposed to do could be across-the-board different.”
When Clymer spoke at the news conference announcing the charges against Bowland and Ceglinski, he said he had not at the time been briefed on the cases.
Clymer then admonished educators and administrators not to undertake internal investigations in lieu of reporting allegations to law enforcement. He said this week he stands by that assertion, but has since clarified that in Ceglinski’s case an internal investigation was necessary for him even to establish reasonable belief.
In order for a prosecution of the charge to be successful, Clymer said “it has to be a pretty egregious violation of one’s duty.”
Smith said, though the legal language may not be clear, the average person knows when their suspicions reach a “reasonable belief” standard.
“You know it when you see it,” he said.