Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Colorado shows how to get a task force on mandatory child abuse reporting – less wrong

The Colorado State Capitol

 In a surprising interim report, the task force says step one is narrowing definitions of abuse and neglect so they’re not conflated with poverty.


 The Task Force has agreed that it must first address Colorado’s current definition of child abuse and neglect. … Colorado’s current definition of abuse and neglect is too broad and conflates several circumstances – such as poverty – with child abuse. Without first addressing the definition of abuse and neglect, the Task Force cannot meaningfully recommend changes to the current mandatory reporting system or law.

--Interim Report of the Colorado Mandatory Reporting Task Force

 All over the country, there’s a knee-jerk response to a horror story that in any way may have involved a failure by someone to report child abuse: The state legislature rushes to expand which professionals are forced to report any suspicion of “child abuse” or “neglect.” (Except, of course, in the 18 states where these laws already apply to everyone.  In those states all lawmakers can do is further expand what must be reported.) 

As the research summarized in NCCPR’s new Issue Paper makes clear, this has backfired – creating a massive child welfare surveillance state that scares families away from seeking help, overloads the system with false reports, trivial cases and poverty cases, and leaves workers even less time to find the few children in real danger.  In other words, mandatory reporting makes all children less safe. 

When legislatures don’t actually expand mandatory reporting themselves, they create a committee/task force/commission or maybe even a blue ribbon commission to tell them how to do it.  The committee/task force/commission spends a year or two on a report that does just that. 

That was the original plan in Massachusetts.  The state’s most fanatical advocate for a take-the-child-and-run approach, state “Child Advocate” Maria Mossaides, was named to chair a commission on mandatory reporting.  She led the commission by the nose, let them hear only what she wanted them to hear, until, finally, she had to hold a public hearing.  Almost every witness told the Commission it was on the wrong track, and should recommend curbing or abolishing mandatory reporting instead of expanding it.  Having finally heard what Mossaides didn’t want them to hear, Commission members said they were “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback.”  They wound up recommending nothing. 

Then it was Colorado’s turn.  It seems everyone in Colorado learned from Massachusetts’ mistakes – but no one learned quite enough. 

First, the good news 

The learning curve begins with the Colorado Legislature, which included in its charge to the Colorado Mandated Reporter Task Force a requirement to examine how implicit bias in mandatory reporting disproportionately affects families of color, people with disabilities and under-resourced communities. 

It continued with the chair of the Colorado Task Force, Mossaides’ Colorado counterpart, Stephane Villafuerte, the state’s “Child Protection Ombudsman.”  I’ve been quite critical of Villafuerte in the past, both concerning a different task force she chairs, on residential treatment, and her office’s previous work concerning mandatory reporting.  But this time, to her credit, she exposed the commission members to a full range of viewpoints. 

Yes, they heard from the usual suspects, such as Casey Family Programs and Colorado’s own Kempe Center.  But they also heard from Jerry Milner, once the federal government’s highest-ranking official overseeing child welfare, now co-founder of the Family Justice Group, and someone who has emerged as a leading opponent of the vast overreach of the current system.  They also heard from Prof. Kelley Fong, whose landmark book Investigating Families has quickly emerged as the gold standard for research in this field. 

Given that the Task Force heard from the full range of viewpoints, it shouldn’t have been a shock when
the Task Force concluded it would be a terrible idea to expand who must report and when they must report it until the Legislature first narrows down what it is they should report.  So the Task Force is actually going to put the horse before the cart and first address how to do that.  As the interim report explains: 

Colorado’s current definition of abuse and neglect is too broad and conflates several circumstances – such as poverty – with child abuse. This effectively requires mandatory reporters to report circumstances that may not involve the safety or well-being of children.

The Task Force also will be looking into two other areas that have the potential to lead to constructive recommendations: 

The development of warmlines and alternative reporting methods. 

This could be useful if these alternatives lead to places in no way connected with family police agencies, and if any mandated reporter who takes advantage of these alternatives is immune from any penalty for “failure to report.” (In other words, if these alternatives provide an off-ramp from the mandatory reporting expressway.) 

Consideration of possible exemptions for professionals working with legal representation teams and/or victims of domestic violence or sexual violence. 

Survivors of domestic violence are among those most adversely affected by mandatory reporting. Some survivors, usually mothers, are scared away from leaving their abusers for fear that their children will be taken away because they “failed to protect” the children from seeing them being beaten.  Yes, that really happens

And, obviously, the effectiveness of a social worker working with a family defense attorney to, say, craft an alternative to the cookie-cutter “service plans” typically issued by family police agencies is limited if they are, themselves, mandatory reporters. 

Now the bad news 

When it comes to mandatory reporting nibbling around the edges isn’t going to accomplish much.  Narrowing definitions is a good idea, but mandatory reporters are still going to be afraid not to report.  Exempting some professionals will still leave most professionals required to report and afraid to do anything else. 

When it comes to mandatory reporting, the most meaningful solution, by far, is to abolish it.  Abolishing mandatory reporting does not mean abolishing reporting; it would simply free professionals to exercise their professional judgment – and send a vital message that every family problem is not a family policing problem.  

Although the Colorado Legislature clearly didn’t contemplate this, the Task Force is free to give lawmakers whatever advice it pleases.  But, while not nearly as bad as Mossaides, Villafuerte appears to have foreclosed this option. 

The Legislature also appeared obsessed with promoting the least helpful solution of all – that all-purpose family policing establishment cop-out: more “training.”  But even if a few hours of “training” could magically cure a lifetime of biases, it still wouldn’t solve the problem of mandated reporters being afraid not to report.  

But at least the Colorado Task Force might get some people to think twice about mandatory reporting.  In most states, they’re not even thinking once.

For more on mandatory reporting in general, and the Colorado Task Force in particular, see this excellent story.