The United States Supreme Court considered a case in which a three-year-old boy told his teachers that he was being abused by his mother’s boyfriend.

The boy arrived at his day-care center with serious bruises on his body and bloodshot eyes. When his teachers asked him what had happened, he identified his mother’s boyfriend as the person who had caused the injuries. The boyfriend was arrested and charged with assault. However, in Ohio, where this case took place, children under the age of ten are considered too young to be able to testify in court, so the child could not be called to the stand. Instead, the teachers testified at the criminal trial about what the child had told them.

The boyfriend was convicted and appealed, arguing that using what the child told his teachers as evidence violated his constitutional right to confront witnesses against him. This right, which is referred to as the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution, guarantees that someone accused of a crime can face and answer prosecution witnesses at a criminal trial. Because of this right, out-of-court statements normally cannot be used as evidence at trial unless the person who made the statements is there to testify.

The Supreme Court held that the teachers’ testimony was permissible. In doing so, it noted that the child’s statements were not made with the primary purpose of creating evidence for prosecution. They occurred in the context of an ongoing emergency involving suspected child abuse. The teachers were asking questions aimed at identifying and ending a threat. They did not inform the child that his answers could be used to arrest or punish his abuser and the conversation was informal and spontaneous. Finally, the court found that the fact that the statements made to the child’s teachers were “highly relevant” to the issue of whether they could be admitted.

Teachers in Texas have an obligation to report suspected child or abuse or neglect within 48 hours of the time that the teacher learns of the suspected abuse. This obligation is not affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case.