Mandatory Reporting Laws of Child Maltreatment Essay

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Every U.S. state has laws mandating that professionals, and in some states laypersons, report cases of suspected child abuse and neglect. It is the responsibility of Child Protective Services (CPS) to respond to these reports by investigating their validity, assessing the risk to the child, and developing a course of action to both protect the child and strengthen the family. Initially, these mandatory reporting laws focused only on medical personnel, but the list of professionals required to report has grown in recent years, as has the list of abusive behaviors they must report. Mandatory reporting legislation has been instrumental in drawing attention to the problem of child maltreatment and has been heralded as a triumph in protecting children. Such laws, however, are also associated with a number of unintended consequences. In this essay, the history of child maltreatment mandatory reporting laws is discussed, as are the characteristics of mandatory reporting and its impact.

History Of Child Maltreatment Mandatory Reporting Laws

Following the publication of R. S. Kempe’s work identifying the battered child syndrome in 1962, the U.S. Children’s Bureau adopted the first laws mandating that physicians report any known cases of child abuse and neglect. Between 1963 and 1967, all jurisdictions in the United States passed statutes requiring certain professionals to report suspected cases of child maltreatment. Over time, research about the problem of child maltreatment mounted, leading to broader definitions and greater awareness that a number of different professionals were in a position to identify and report abuse. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-247) provided federal child protection funds for states that changed existing mandatory reporting laws to conform to federal standards. By the mid-1980s, doctors, nurses, social workers, mental health professionals, and teachers and other school staff were all required to report suspected physical, sexual, or emotional child abuse.

Currently, reports of child maltreatment are made either to states’ local child protective services agencies, law enforcement agencies, or central state registries. Most states require reporters to contact appropriate agencies immediately after suspicion is raised, and many states also require a written report to follow within a specific time period, usually 24 to 48 hours. To encourage reporting and to reduce legal impediments to reporting, all states provide for some type of immunity from civil or criminal action to mandated reporters who make a report in good faith with the intention of protecting a child. In addition, other provisions protect reporters such as exceptions to required confidentiality in situations of suspected maltreatment and the requirement that only a reasonable suspicion is necessary to make a report. There is also the possibility of legal penalties for professionals who fail to report suspected cases of child maltreatment.

Characteristics Of Mandated Reports

Each year the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System collects annual data on child abuse and neglect reports accepted by CPS. In 2003, CPS agencies received approximately 3 million referrals of abuse or neglect. The agencies accepted approximately two thirds of these referrals for investigation or assessment. Of these accepted reports, 57% came from professionals such as educational personnel (16%), legal or law enforcement personnel (16%), social service personnel (12%), medical personnel (8%), and others (5%). The remaining 43% of reports came from nonprofessional sources including anonymous reports (9%), parents (7%), other relatives (8%), friends or neighbors (6%), alleged victims or perpetrators (1%), and other sources (12%).

Of the referrals that received investigation or assessment in 2003, more than one quarter were ultimately substantiated, meaning that CPS determined that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that at least one child was a victim of child abuse or neglect. Of these substantiated cases, the most common form of maltreatment was neglect (60%), followed by physical (20%), sexual (10%), and psychological (5%) abuse.

Impact Of Mandatory Reporting Laws

Most experts agree that mandatory reporting laws have had a significant impact on the identification of child abuse and neglect. Between 1976 and 1993, for example, the number of children officially reported for child maltreatment increased dramatically and reached the 3 million mark in 1993, representing a 347% increase from 1976. The number of reports began to level off or decline in the mid-1990s and have since become relatively stable.

Although mandatory reporting laws have clearly succeeded in increasing rates of reporting and the identification of child maltreatment, they have also been associated with a number of unanticipated outcomes. One unintended consequence of these laws, for example, is the overburdening of the CPS system. When mandatory reporting laws were first enacted in the 1960s, child maltreatment was thought to be a relatively rare occurrence. Reports of child abuse and neglect have provided evidence to the contrary, and the dramatic rise in reports has overwhelmed CPS agencies whose resources are unable to meet the needs of children and families. CPS agencies have lacked the capacity to respond appropriately to reports of child maltreatment and as a result have been forced to make accommodations in an effort to manage caseloads. Out of necessity, many agencies have narrowed their definitions of abuse to address only the most severe reports, resulting in the provision of services to only a limited number of children and families in need.

Another unanticipated impact associated with mandatory reporting laws is that they might place people in the helping professions in a difficult position, essentially forcing them to violate the confidences of their clients. Professionals who want to help may fear that reporting the suspected abuse will cause the family or child more harm than good. They may be concerned that the child will be unnecessarily removed from the home or that there will be reprisals against the child. Professionals who are familiar with the child protection system, furthermore, are likely well aware of its shortcomings. They may realize that a particular allegation is unlikely to be substantiated or that a family is unlikely to receive the services it needs. Knowing the CPS system is overburdened, they may see themselves as better equipped to help needy families. In the end, professionals might reasonably conclude that it is better to maintain confidentiality and continue to work with these clients than to violate the client’s trust and risk disruption of treatment. In addition, mandated professionals may have quite reasonable concerns about the potential for negative personal consequences, perhaps fearing that they could be sued, accused of false allegations, or forced to appear in court. The combined effects of these factors are that many professionals who are required to report suspected abuse choose not to do so. In the second National Incidence Study, for example, only half of the maltreatment cases known to community professionals were officially reported to CPS.

Despite problems associated with mandatory reporting, the consensus among legal scholars and others involved in child protection has been that mandatory reporting laws are essential to child protection. Given the concerns about CPS and many professionals’ corresponding reluctance to report cases, however, more and more experts are calling for modifications in mandatory reporting laws. One possible solution would be to create an alternative, less adversarial response to less severe cases of child maltreatment. This approach would remove the reporting obligation from mental health professionals who encounter minor cases of abuse that appear not to present a serious threat to a child’s safety. Such families could be diverted to a different department within CPS or to a separate agency, be handled on a voluntary basis, and/or be offered services that might stop their problems from escalating without a costly CPS investigation. Of course, this change would make mandated professionals responsible for determining what is or is not a severe case, a responsibility that also creates a less than perfect system with potential difficulties (e.g., successfully distinguishing among various degrees of risk via a telephone call). Recent efforts to develop risk-assessment tools and preliminary investigations of states using the triage approach, however, appear promising.


  1. Larner, M. B., Stevenson, C. S., & Behrman, R. E. (1998). Protecting children from abuse and neglect [Special issue]. The Future of Children, 8(1).
  2. Sedlak, A. J. (1990). Technical amendment to the study findings: National incidence and prevalence of child abuse and neglect: 1988. Rockville, MD: Westat.
  3. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. (2005). Child maltreatment 2003. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  4. Zellman, G. L., & Fair, C. C. (2002). Preventing and reporting abuse. In J. E. B. Myers, L. Berliner, J. Briere, C. T. Hendrix, C. Jenny, & T. A. Reid (Eds.), The APSAC handbook on child maltreatment (2nd ed., pp. 449–475). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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