Sunday, January 14, 2024

NCCPR's new Issue Paper: The Failure of Mandatory Reporting

Last week NCCPR published its first entirely new Issue Paper in 15 years.  We pull together in summary form, with links to sources, the ugly history and enormous harm of mandatory "child abuse" reporting laws.  It's available on our website, or you can read it right here:


Before termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than “termination of parental rights”), before children are torn from the arms of their families and consigned to the chaos of foster care, before someone from the family police agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) pounds on the door in the middle of the night, demands entry, interrogates and sometimes stripsearches the children as part of a traumatic investigation – before any of that, there is a call to a child abuse “hotline.” 

In rare cases there is good reason to make that call.  In many more cases, there is not.  And in some cases the people who make these calls know how much harm they will do, but feel they have no choice.  Because they are “mandated reporters.” 

Every state has a law requiring most professionals who work with children to report any suspicion of “child abuse” or “child neglect.”  In 18 states all adults are mandatory reporters.  

These laws are not evidence-based.  They were rushed into place more than 50 years ago, evidence-be-damned.  Nobody did any studies before putting them into place.  Mandatory reporting was a well-intended guess, born of hype and fearmongering.  We guessed wrong, with terrible consequences for children.  These are some of the consequences: 

● Even the original proponents of mandatory reporting didn’t call for what we have now. Rather they wanted a narrow requirement in which a few health professionals would be required to report suspicions of sexual abuse or abuse causing serious physical injuries.  But today, of every 100 calls to hotlines – most of which are made by mandated reporters – 97 turn out not to be “substantiated” cases of sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse.  

Instead of a way of targeting horrendous cases of abuse, mandatory reporting metastasized into the foundation of a giant child welfare surveillance state, with disastrous consequences.  Today more than one-third of all children, and more than half of Black children will be forced to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation before they turn 18. 

● That has made all children less safe.  In addition to the trauma inflicted on children forced to undergo interrogations and stripsearches, caseworkers are drowning in false reports, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect, leaving them even less time to find the few children in real danger.  As one study explained:  “more reports made but without sufficient evidence can divert valuable but limited resources from endangered children who are actually in need of protection.” 

So it’s no wonder that in the years since mandatory reporting was enacted child abuse deaths have increased – and states in which the rate of reporting is lower have proportionately no more child abuse deaths than where the rate is higher.  As Dr. Richard Krugman, former director of the C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, said of this approach: “Doing the same thing for 40 years that doesn't seem (or can't be shown) to be working was someone's definition of insanity.” 

● Mandatory reporting laws terrify impoverished families, driving them away from seeking help.  As Stephane Land, author of Maid and Class writes about her years of poverty: 

“I couldn’t admit to [my child’s] teacher or the principal that we sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. I was scared someone might report me to child protective services and I might lose custody.”
And rather than face clandestine drug testing and suspicion from medical professionals who are mandatory reporters, pregnant people stay away from prenatal care and giving birth in hospitals. 

● Mandatory reporting is where the racial bias that permeates family policing begins.  Mandatory reporters are more likely to suspect abuse or neglect if a family is nonwhite – even when everything else is identical.  

● Among those who suffer most: Children of domestic violence victims.  Terrified that their children will be taken under laws labeling them bad parents for “allowing” their children to see them being beaten, a national survey found that domestic violence survivors fear seeking help – often for good reason.  As one mother said, after exactly that happened: “I should have just let my ex-husband beat my ass.” 


● 1983: Dr. Eli Newberger of Children’s Hospital in Boston writes that "had professionals, like me, known then what we know now, we would never have urged on Congress, federal and state officials broadened concepts of child abuse as the basis for reporting legislation." 

● 1998: The National Research Council concludes that “Mandatory reporting requirements were adopted without evidence of their effectiveness; no reliable study has yet demonstrated their positive or negative effects on the health and well-being of children at risk of maltreatment, their parents and caregivers and service providers.” (As we’ve seen, in the years since, studies have shown that the effects of mandatory reporting are overwhelmingly negative.)

● 2011: In the wake of the scandal involving former Penn State football coach (and former foster parent and group home operator) Jerry Sandusky, there are calls to vastly expand mandated reporting.  But another one-time proponent of these laws, Prof. David Finkelhor says: "Maybe it's better that people use discretion ... If everybody obeyed the letter of the law and reported a suspicion of abuse, the agencies would be completely overwhelmed with reports." 


First of all, “training” is not enough.  “More training” is the all-purpose cop-out the family police always propose to avoid real change.  True most existing training is horrendous – in fact, it’s not really training at all, just never-ending exhortations to report! Report! Report!  But even less awful training, as has been initiated in New York State, can accomplish very little.  That’s because, while there are no penalties for false reports if made in “good faith,” there are civil and criminal penalties for failure to report.  So mandated reporters make “CYA referrals.”  

Here's what should be done: 

● Abolish mandatory reporting.  Abolishing mandatory reporting does not mean abolishing reporting.  Professionals would remain free to exercise their professional judgment and report when they felt it was genuinely necessary.  

● Provide an “off-ramp.”  If states are unwilling to repeal mandatory reporting outright, they should at least provide an alternative to professionals who prefer to be what activist Joyce McMillan calls mandatory supporters instead of mandatory reporters.  So, for example, a teacher who made sure a hungry child got food, or a child without warm clothing in the winter got clothing would be relieved of any obligation to confuse that child’s poverty with neglect by calling a child abuse hotline. 

● At a minimum, exempt witnessing domestic violence from grounds to report “child abuse” or “neglect” and exempt professionals who primarily deal with domestic violence survivors from mandatory reporting requirements.