The following is from a briefing paper I wrote for an organization in India where there is some discussion about introducing mandatory reporting laws. It is still controversial. In Canada and the United States we have had them for many years and we forget that they have been both beneficial and harmful.
Mandatory reporting to child protection authorities (CPS) is an issue that receives consideration in various jurisdictions. The essence of it is that certain persons or professionals are mandated to contact CPS when they believe that a child is at risk as a result of abuse and, in some cases, neglect.
The purpose of this briefing paper is to review the main arguments for and against the use of this tool. Such reporting is typically embedded within child protection legislation by the competent authority, In some countries, that may be a national mandate whereas in others, it is the responsibility of state or provincial governments.
Context for Mandatory Reporting
The moral and ethical basis for seeking to bring in mandatory reporting is that children who are being subject to harm, from parents or other guardians, deserve to be protected. In this context, it is thought that the state should perform this role when those who are otherwise entrusted to care for a child show themselves to be unable to do so.
Intervention by the state is often thought to be an action that should be taken with extreme care, as most nations with child protection systems believe that family should be the primary unit to raise children. The state should only intervene when the family cannot or will not do that. Even then, child protection legislation will typically focus on efforts to preserve the family unit. CPS social workers will have, as a mandate, to intervene with a goal of helping the family to stay together. When children are removed from the family, the goal will be to return the children to family care as soon as possible with intervention aimed at correcting whatever caused the children to be temporarily removed. Severing parental rights to raise their children is considered a last resort.
The notion is that CPS should use the least intrusive option available. The best interest of the child is thought to reside in the family, which is an underpinning of many cultural beliefs about family.
Families who are abusive or neglectful to their children would not typically seek out the attention of CPS. Thus, mandatory reporting has been framed as a way to ensure that these families are brought to attention so that children can be protected.
Present Mandatory Approaches
Mandatory reporting is used in several Western countries who have highly developed child protection systems. This includes Canada, Australia, and The United States. As Matthews & Kenny (2008) note, it is these three countries who are most invested in this approach.
Matthews & Kenny (2008) report that there are other countries which have some form of mandatory reporting legislation. These are outline in Table 1. Some of these countries do this by policy as opposed to legislation. Others have a voluntary system.
Mandatory by Legislation or Policy
Argentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Egypt, England, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Turkmenistan, USA, Zambia
Voluntary Reporting Systems
Cameroon, China, Germany, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Saint Lucia, Scotland, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Togo
Table 1: Reporting systems by legislation, policy or on a voluntary basis – Source: Matthews & Kenny, 2008
It is apparent in Table 1 that there are nations identified with poorly developed child protection systems.
Countries that use this reporting mechanism place an obligation on various professionals (such as doctors, teachers, social workers, psychologists, dentists and so on) while others also place an obligation upon all citizens.
It would appear that other countries have felt that this approach lacks evidence of effectiveness. Others feel that this approach has a tendency to increase the conflict between a family and the state, thus reducing the effectiveness of interventions.
Arguments in Favour
The prime argument is, as noted above, the need to protect children from abuse and neglect when primary carers are unwilling or unable to do so. While legislation demanding reporting cover all children who would fall within the child protection legislation, the main focus is around small children who would be otherwise incapable of telling about the abuse.
Yet, for older children, the harm may have become so normalized for them that they are unable to recognize that what goes on in the family is harmful.
A third argument is that children are often hidden within the family structure. Therefore, the risks that they live through are typically invisible to the larger society. When a professional finally sees them, the harm may have been going on for some time. The child may still be reluctant to disclose and thus it is up to the professional, as opposed to the child, to then take steps to protect.
It might also be argued that, in the absence of mandatory reporting, professionals may be very reluctant to report for fear that they will alienate the child and / or the family. The case vignette in box 1 illustrates the point. Professionals can feel very much caught in a bind between their loyalty to the child and family versus a professional obligation. Mandatory reporting takes the professional out of that bind.
There are other arguments that also favour this approach. Mandated professionals will tend to know the family circumstances or the risk factors in a way that leads to better and more detailed referrals to child protection. Thus, when a case is reported, the case has a far higher probability of being one that should truly matter to CPS.
Dr. Paul Johnston has been seeing Evan, a 4 year old boy, as his patient since Evan was born. He has also been the family doctor for his mother, Betty, now 26 years old, since she was a teenager. Dr. Johnston has had some concerns with her parenting although feels that he has been able to give her good advice. While Evan has been a bit behind on his developmental milestones, with his advice, Betty has been trying to ensure that Evan gets the support he needs.
However, for the past 2 visits, Evan has had bruising on his stomach and buttocks that Betty says is the result of Evan falling while playing. To Dr. Johnston, these explanations do not seem to make sense given the injuries.
She has also told him that she has a new boyfriend living at the house. She says that Evan does not like him.
Dr. Johnston suspects that the new boyfriend is hitting Evan. He fears that if he calls child protection that Betty will be upset and stop coming to see him. He believes that he has a good relationship with her and has been able to help her be a better parent.
The argument further goes on to suggest that the professional can then be used as an ally to help build better and more effective interventions given their knowledge of the family.
For many legislators, the approach has appeal as they can be seen as taking concrete steps to protect children. In general, this may then receive broad support in the community. It could be seen as offering a symbolic message to the community that abusive and neglectful behavior by caregivers should not be tolerated,
For many professionals, such legislation has a significant protection. They are typically protected from allegations of professional misconduct if they report in accordance with mandatory reporting guidelines.
Proponents of mandatory reporting suggest that it has the ability to increase the awareness of child abuse in the larger community. Thus, it can serve both awareness and prevention purposes. There are also those who would look at some of the major scandals of recent years such as the Sandusky matter in the USA, the Catholic church and other clergy in various parts of the world and the Boy Scouts in Canada and the USA as proof that mandatory reporting laws are needed. Yet some of those cases occurred in jurisdictions with such laws in place.
Perhaps one of the most significant arguments that can be mounted is that mandatory reporting must be connected to a responsive child protection system that can effectively assess and intervene. If a system cannot manage the referrals, or if there is no effective system, then mandatory reporting becomes a futile effort. Building support of professionals, who are called upon to report, requires that they believe the cases are managed well.
Reporters also fear that they will be identified leading to angry families then venting upon them. Many laws seek to protect the identity of the reporter. The context of the report can make it fairly easy for a family to determine who called child protection in many cases. In the same vein, it can also act as a barrier to families seeking help fearing that they will be reported to CPS (Munro & Parton, 2007)
Another barrier is when systems are over loaded and social workers face high caseloads. This means that reported cases may be poorly managed or not managed at all. Professionals will then wonder what was the value in filing a report in the first place.
This gets further compounded when the system receives more reports than it imagined would occur when mandatory reporting legislation was brought into place. Melton (2005) argues that abuse is a far more reaching problem than CPS can manage, particularly when neglect is included. This can get even murkier when cases that are being reported are a result of such societally systemic issues such as poverty and community disadvantage. There are also indicators that heavy mandatory reporting levels can result in serious cases being missed or receiving insufficient attention, to the detriment of the safety of the child.
Other critics have argued that mandatory reporting, especially when it includes the public, leads to a number of cases being referred that simply should never be. Spiteful family members, former spouses, alienated parents can all become the source of reporting. This then causes limited CPS resources to be used for cases that should never be in the system.
A further argument against such a policy relates to the amount of training that is required to make such a system effective. Those that will be required to report need to understand what is required, to whom they should report and what they can expect will happen. Training costs are not one-time expenditures. People change, new people come, circumstances change – all leading to an ongoing training requirement. This can be expensive. Critics suggest that such monies are poorly spent, as there is little evidence that mandatory reporting actually reduces rates of child abuse and neglect (Centre for Social Research and Education, 2012). Training is also needed to ensure that there is some understanding about what is meant by various terms such as physical, emotional, sexual abuse as well as neglect. There may be other conditions that fall within the requirements that will also need explanation. Those who are required to report must understand what and when they are to do so.
The understanding of what constitutes abuse also changes over time. In some jurisdictions things such as exposure to criminal activity by parents, drug or alcohol dependency in the home, exposure to domestic violence are all examples of understanding that emerged in the relatively recent times. When mandatory reporting laws came into vogue in the 1970s and beyond, they followed the work of American pediatrician C. Henry Kempe and his colleagues who wrote about the Battered Child Syndrome (1962). They were concerned with physical abuse. Today, a much broader range of behaviors is of concern.
There also remains a question about what level of suspicion is required for a report to be made (Matthews & Kenny, 2008). Many who report may be quite confused about when a case crosses that threshold. These same authors also raise the question of the suspected timing of the abuse. Is it reportable if the abuse occurred at some time in the past or must the risk be a current one?
There are also forms of abuse that occur outside the family. Sexual abuse is such an example. The West has seen a series of very high profile cases that involve media personalities, coaches and clergy, for example. Critics worry about how far reaching child protection reporting should be as opposed to matters that more properly might be the domain of the criminal justice systems.
Even for matters occurring within the family, there must be clarity as to who is to be included in such legislation or policy. Many might feel comfortable that a report under such laws should include a parent harming a child. What, however, if the perpetrator is a sibling? There are many approaches.
What about research on effectiveness?
There is little hard data that suggests mandatory reporting reduces the impact of abuse and neglect or benefits child protection systems (Centre for Social Research and Evaluation, 2012). The Australian Doctor’s Fund (2009) reported that they were unable to find any substantial research evaluating the impact of mandatory reporting. What research does exist suggests that mandatory reporting leads to high case loads with large proportions of reported cases being unsubstantiated. Yet, valuable resources were undertaken in order to investigate the unsubstantiated cases (Delfabbro, Hirte, Wilson & Rogers, 2010).
Some data suggests that reporting to CPS is often more focused on disadvantaged and marginalized populations (Choate, 2013).
What would need to happen?
If a mandatory reporting system were to be introduced, there are several steps required:
· Legislation would need to be clear on what is to be reported by who and to whom. The legislation will also need to be clear on the definitions of terms such as abuse, neglect, maltreatment and so on. It must also carefully articulate the persons who could be reported upon;
· There needs to be a vibrant, structured child protection system that is capable of receiving, investigating and managing referrals as well as the follow up with cases where abuse is substantiated;
· Training is required for all professionals who would be covered by the reporting requirement. This would need to be complex ensuring that reporters fully understood their obligation as well as the thresholds. Legislation is often vague leaving professionals unsure about the criteria;
· Effective inter-agency communication protocols that ensure data can be shared with child protection workers and related care professionals;
· Mechanisms for effective case load management. This would include means by which reports that come in from various sources can be collated allowing the investigator to build a comprehensive picture;
· Follow – up procedures with mandatory reporters in order to build faith in the child protection system; and
· Intervention services that are designed to assist families to correct and manage parenting risks.
Australian Doctor’s Fund. (2009). Mandatory reporting – Does it work? Author.
Centre for Social Research and Evaluation. (2012). Mandatory reporting: Literature snapshot – July 2012. Auckland, NZ: Ministry of Social Development.
Choate, P.W. (2013). Parents with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in child protection systems: Issues for Parenting Capacity Assessments. First People's Child and Family Review, In press.
Delfabbro, P., Hirte, C., Willson, R. & Rogers, N. (2010). Longitudinal trends in child protection statistics in South Australia. Children Australia, 35 (3), 4-10.
Harries, M. & Clare, M. (2002). Report for the Western Australian Child Protection Council: Mandatory reporting of child abuse: Evidence and options. Discipline of Social Work and Social Policy: University of Western Australia.
Kempe, C.H., Silverman, F., Steele, B. Droegmueller, W. & Silver, H. (1962). The battered child syndrome. Journal of the American Medical Association, 181, 4-11.
Matthews, B. & Kenny, M.C. (2008). Mandatory reporting legislation in the United States, Canada and Australia: A cross-jurisdictional review of key features, differences and issues. Child Maltreatment, 13, 50-62. http://doi.dx.org/10.1177/1077559507310613
Melton, G.B. (2005). Mandated reporting: A policy without reason. Child Abuse and Neglect, 29, 9-18. http://doi.dx.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2004.05.005
Munro, E. & Parton, N. (2007). How far is England in the process of introducing a mandatory reporting system? Child Abuse Review, 16, (1) 5-16. http://doi.dx.org/10.1002/car.973
 The author is presently conducting research in this area. This is one of the preliminary themes found in the data.