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Should Professionals be Required to Report Suspicions of Child Maltreatment?

I bet for most people reading this article, the answer to the title’s question will be a resounding “YES!” or even “OF COURSE”! However, I’d like all readers to stop before jumping to conclusions of what is “good”, “right” or “best”, and really sit with the question.


Check out our video here for the deep dive


We live in a world where many professionals (e.g. doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, psychologists, etc.) have been required to report suspicions of child maltreatment for longer than most of these individual professionals have been alive. But, professionals weren’t always required to report suspicions of child maltreatment. There were good reasons why the policy of mandated reporting was adopted 50+ years ago. However, arguably, the current system might not be the best way to protect children from harm.



Where did Mandated Reporting Laws Come From?


It wasn’t until the 1960s that there was significant enough concern for protecting children from abuse that the policy of mandated reporting was even suggested. The first mandated reporting laws were based on the belief that if society could require professionals who have substantial contact with children and families to report suspected child abuse, like doctors, the government can step in and protect children before they are irreversibly harmed.


By 1967, all 50 states and the District of Columbia passed legislation requiring doctors and other medical personnel to report suspected child maltreatment. Within five years after passing mandatory reporting legislation in New York State, child fatalities dropped by 50%. Mandated reporting laws seemed to be working, and so these laws were quickly expanded across the country.


What are the differences between Mandated Reporting policies of the 1960s and those of today?


The original mandated reporting laws were limited in scope. For instance, original mandated reporting laws only required doctors and medical personnel to report their suspicions to CPS. The list of who is a mandated reporter has grown exponentially over time. In all states, teachers, police, social workers, psychologists, and many other professionals have been added to the list of mandated reporters. In 18 states ALL adults are mandated reporters.



The first mandated reporting laws focused on protecting children from physical abuse, not other forms of maltreatment like neglect or emotional abuse. There was a reason for this. The original policy framers in the 1960s and 1970s were focused on responding to child physical abuse, not neglect. Physical abuse often has visible evidence, like broken bones and bruises. Neglect is more difficult to determine. The definition of neglect is often tied to subjective adjectives like “adequate”, “sufficient” and “appropriate”. These terms mean different things to different people.


The original framers of mandated reporting laws conscientiously avoided requiring reports of child neglect. Many experts in the field of child maltreatment did not want to require reports of child neglect because they feared over-reporting of unnecessary reports. They were concerned reports of neglect would overwhelm child protection services, making it harder for physical and sexual abuse cases to be identified. They feared most reports of neglect would be unsubstantiated after investigation. And, they feared the over-reporting of neglect would disproportionately impact children from families living in poverty, and children of color.


The framers had reason to be concerned.





Realities of Child Maltreatment Reports Today


More than 60% percent of reports made to CPS solely involve allegations of neglect. And, more than 70% of those reports are unsubstantiated after investigation. (USDHHS, 2022)


The number of poor families, and Black and Brown families, that are reported to CPS without a subsequent investigation finding evidence that they need intervention or protection is staggering. More than 50% of Black children’s parents will be investigated by CPS at some point in time (Kim, et al., 2017), but ¾ of those investigations will not find evidence of abuse or neglect (USDHHS, 2022).


Is the Current System Really a Problem? Yes.

  • Mandated reporters, themselves, admit that they make reports to protect themselves from liability, even when they know that a report will likely not help the child or their family. (Raz, 2020)

  • Parents, especially in low income areas and/or communities of color, admit they avoid telling teachers, doctors, and social workers when they are struggling and/or need help, because they are afraid the professional will make a report to CPS that will only make things worse.


WE NEED TO RETHINK OUR SYSTEM.


We want a system that protects children from harm.

We want a system that supports families.


After 50+ years of mandated reporting policies, it is time to take a deeper look at the negative impacts of our current system, and come up with ways to address the problems caused by the well-meaning system designed more than a generation ago.


For instance, we can redefine mandated reporters as "Mandated Supporters". Instead of requiring reports to child protective services, especially in cases of concerns of neglect, we can train professionals to provide the support families and children need to avoid harm. We could change the laws to permit reports of neglect, instead of requiring such reports.


We can do better. We must do better.



References

  • Kim H, Wildeman C, Jonson-Reid M, Drake B. Lifetime Prevalence of Investigating Child Maltreatment Among US Children. Am J Public Health. 2017 Feb;107(2):274-280. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303545. Epub 2016 Dec 20. PMID: 27997240; PMCID: PMC5227926.

  • Raz, M. (2020). Calling child protective services is a form of community policing that should be used appropriately: Time to engage mandatory reporters as to the harmful effects of unnecessary reports. Children and Youth Services Review, 110, Article 104817. (Summarized here: https://caseyfamilypro-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/media/20.07-QFF-RFF-Community-Policing.pdf)

  • U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau. (2022). Child Maltreatment 2020. Available from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/data-research/child-maltreatment.

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