Child Maltreatment Legislation Essay

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Both federal and state laws govern responses by child protective services agencies and the courts to reported cases of abuse and neglect. In many ways, the emergence of state law reform over the past 30-plus years in the field of child maltreatment intervention has been based upon requirements for state law, policy, and practice contained in federal law, beginning with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974. However, much of the initial state legislation related to abuse or neglect of children dates back to the 1960s, after the development by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of a model child abuse reporting law that states were urged to replicate. Thus, early legislative areas of focus, and the area of much continued reform today, included a listing of those who must report suspected abuse or neglect of a child, how abuse and neglect is defined for purposes of these reporting laws, the required responses to such reports by government child protective services agencies or the police, immunity and privacy protections for those reporting abuse and neglect, and the confidentiality of reported abuse and neglect information and records. Following federal enactment of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (and subsequent amendments in 1997), state legislatures expanded their laws to mirror issues raised in federal law, including a wider range of requisite court hearings in abuse or neglect cases, expansion and clearer definitions of grounds for the termination of parental rights, and requirements of child welfare agencies to take steps to prevent unnecessary removal of children from their homes, or to speed family reunification.

Common Topics of Child Maltreatment Legislation

In addition to mandatory reporting laws, state legislation addresses both the confidentiality of child protective services agency records and the need for disclosure or sharing of that information in certain situations (e.g., to aid in multidisciplinary case collaboration or in the event of a child maltreatment related death where public information disclosure may be mandated). The central recordkeeping practices of child protective services agencies, enabling them to access and use these databases when confronted later with new reports of child maltreatment that might involve the same child, family, or alleged perpetrator (frequently referred to as central registries), have been the subject of much legislation, as has the use of that information for other purposes, such as background screening of applicants for childcare work, foster care licenses, adoption, or other situations. More recently, state laws also have addressed when child protective services agency personnel must or can access criminal history (arrest and conviction) information on those adults seeking to become foster or adoptive parents or for use in aiding in the investigation of a report of child maltreatment or the conducting of a safety assessment related to the adults present in the child’s home.

Reporting laws, however, also continue to be modified frequently. For example, the listing of those professionals who must report suspected abuse or neglect of a child has continued to expand. Members of the clergy in many states are now mandated reporters, although states vary on whether information received in a confessional situation would be covered. A few states specifically mandate reporting by attorneys, despite the fact that they may have learned of suspected abuse or neglect in the context of a privileged attorney–client relationship. Recognizing the links between child maltreatment and animal cruelty, some state laws now mandate reporting of suspected child maltreatment by animal control or humane officers who may learn such information in the course of their animal protection work. Another issue that is more common than this mandate in child maltreatment statutes is the requirement for cross-reporting to the police or a criminal prosecutor, most typically with reports of serious child maltreatment initially made to child protective services agencies. State legislatures continue to revise definitions of child maltreatment: in many states, expanding the scope of what is considered abuse or neglect of a child (e.g., when children are exposed to severe or repetitive domestic violence that risks subjecting the children to emotional harm or situations involving parental substance abuse), while in fewer states, actually contracting the scope of child abuse or neglect interventions by limiting interventions to serious or recent maltreatment situations. State laws also frequently include criminal penalties for failure to report child maltreatment, and some have penalties for deliberately and falsely reporting abuse or neglect. State criminal laws continue to be regularly modified to enhance penalties for child maltreatment related crimes, to revise the statutes of limitation that have in the past precluded both civil and criminal interventions in cases where child maltreatment occurred many years earlier, and for placing those who commit abuse-related crimes against children on special offender registries.

Finally, many state laws have directly focused on implementation of specific provisions of the 1974 federal child abuse and neglect legislation, addressing such topics as the requirement that a trained attorney or guardian ad litem be appointed for the child in every civil child protective court action; the mandatory referrals to child protective services of children born exposed to illegal drugs or cases of withholding medically indicated treatment from disabled infants with life-threatening conditions; the provisions for prompt expungement from central registries of publicly accessible information or use of the registry entry for employment or background checks if the report of child maltreatment is unsubstantiated; the protections of parental rights in the conduct of child maltreatment investigations by child protective services agencies, including early notification of parents of the reasons for the child protection investigation; and the creation and maintenance of citizens groups (citizen review panels) to provide oversight and review of child protective service agency operations. Within the next few years, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act will likely be amended once again, as it has every 3 to 5 years since 1974, and this revision may lead to additional state law or practice requirements that may result in new areas of state legislative change.

Child Welfare Legislative Reforms

Based upon the 1974 federal child abuse act, the 1980 federal child welfare act, and the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act that amended the 1980 legislation, states have also passed many new laws related to the work of the child welfare system, more broadly, in its response to aiding the families of abused and neglected children. Other legislative changes have been prodded by the federal Child and Family Services Reviews conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which have noted some profound shortcomings in state and local practice related to the safety, permanency, and well-being of abused or neglected children in foster care. Some legislative changes have been needed because of changes in child welfare agency practice and policy, such as the increasing use of kinship care or relative placement as an alternative to foster care with a stranger or the advocacy for infant “safe haven” laws that negate parental criminal responsibility if a parent leaves his or her newborn in a safe environment with the intent of not resuming care. Because of the importance of other child welfare best practices, state laws frequently address such topics as case planning requirements and parental participation in the development of case plans; concurrent planning by agencies for child permanency; reasonable efforts to preserve or reunify families (and when those efforts need not be made) and to achieve legal permanency for children; criminal background checks on prospective foster and adoptive parents and how the results may impact upon related agency decisions; and laws establishing both timelines and decision criteria for certain important child-related court hearings, such as the permanency hearing mandated by the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Another area where there continues to be legislative activity relates to the involvement in court proceedings of the child, parents, foster parents, relatives, and other interested adults, including having their voices more effectively heard in court and ensuring that they be given effective opportunities to actively participate at all hearings. Finally, certain issues related to child and youth permanency remain the topic of much legislation, such as subsidized permanent guardianship (expanding upon subsidized adoption laws) and laws related to improving outcomes for older youth who are in the process of transitioning to adulthood from foster care.


  1. Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act and Adoption and Safe Families Act, 42 U.S. Code Sections 620 and 670.
  2. Baker, D. R. (2001). Making sense of the ASFA regulations: A roadmap for effective implementation. Washington, DC: ABA Center on Children and the Law.
  3. Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, 42 U.S. Code Section 5101.
  4. Child Welfare Information Gateway, State Statutes Search:

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