Background and Basics of Mandated Reporting

As noted on Friday, mandated reporting laws have been in existence since around the 1960s in the United States, a requirement for states that want to receive money from the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). These laws were supposed to  encourage reporting to help Child Protective Services (CPS) protect vulnerable children from abuse and/or unhealthy living situations in their state. Because of this, many states decided to mandate specific groups of professionals to report, people they felt would be the best equipped to identify abused and neglected children.  And with that mandate some states outline legal consequences for failing to report.

However, as illustrated by the Penn State scandal, mandatory reporting laws are now more seen as a way to enforce and police reporting activities or failing to report. These conflicting ideas result in a variety of barriers for mandated reporters encountering suspicious situations.

A Reporting “How to”

Researchers Warner and Hansen characterize reporting activities in four phases:  assessment and evaluation of the situation, identification of suspected abuse, reporting to authorities, and validations of suspicions. (Influence of Case and Professional…, Hasen et al) The very basics are highlighted in the chart below.


Generally,  verbal reports are made to one of three entities – the state’s reporting hotline, the state’s child protective services agency, or law enforcement. A verbal report must be followed up by a written report and then the case is entered into the state database.

Whether or not the case is substantiated – meaning evidence of maltreatment was found – the report will stay in the database for a designated period of time (specific to each state).

Next, the state’s child protection agency will investigate the situation. The case will be ruled one of three ways: unfounded, meaning there was no evidence of maltreatment; indicated, meaning it is likely that maltreatment has occurred; or substantiated, meaning sufficient evidence of maltreatment was found. If the report of abuse is substantiated and/or indicated, a case will be opened and a caseworker assigned to the family. If the case is unfounded or indicated, referrals to voluntary community-based services are provided and the report remains in the system for the specified period of time.

This process is the general flow, no matter where the reporting happens. Anything more specific is dictated by the individual state’s legislation.

State Mandates

In order to get Title IV money (CAPTA), states are required to produce their own specific mandated reporting laws to further define who must report, what must be reported, and how to report. The major differences between states are who is a mandated reporter, what degree of abuse are they to report on, and timing of abuse (whether only past abuse or threat of future harm).

In general, state’s definitions of mandated reporting falls into three categories based on the degree of knowledge the mandated reporter needs to have to report: believe, suspect, know. Let’s look at each a little more in-depth:

1. Eighteen states have belief-based mandates, the broadest of legal definitions for what a mandated reporter is supposed to report. If the mandated reporter has any reason to believe there is abuse going on, they are required to report. The benefits of this is encouraging reporting of any situation in the best interest of the child. However, more often than not this leads to both under- and over-reporting since there are no guidelines for what defines abuse.

2. Thirteen states employ the suspected-based mandates, which is based on the idea that mandated reporters judge a suspicious situation against some sort of professional standards to decide whether or not the situation needs to be reported. This type of law seeks to mitigate biases or inappropriate personal lenses by applying professional lenses to dictate reporting activities. However, like the belief-based laws, professionals often find this definition too vague and it leads to individual interpretations of laws, abuse, and professional conduct.

3. Sixteen states have knowledge-based mandates, which use the very legal terms of evidence and knowledge to dictate reporters’ responsibility. This allows the most legal protection for mandated reporters; however, they still remain suspiciously vague about what kind of evidence and how much is needed to know that abuse is taking place. This can also lead to underreporting.

(The other 3 states have laws that do not fit into these three “degree” categories.)

Another difference between states is who must report. Currently, 18 states have universal laws, which means that everyone is a mandated reporter. Several others, including Congress, have bills before their legislative bodies to make everyone a mandated reporter. The other states mandate those who are child-serving jobs. The most common professions according to the National Child Welfare Gateway  are medical staff and doctors, teachers and school personnel, and social workers. Other states include day care providers, community center workers, coaches, and others.

And lastly, “timing” of abuse mandated to report differs among states. Some states require an actual instance of abuse or neglect to be suspected to trigger reporting where as some states push for more inclusive laws to include “future threat of harm” as a prevention measure. This gets into the idea of the purpose of mandated reporting laws – whether they are to prevent and protect or just protect. The positives and negatives of the current laws will be discussed further on this blog later this week.

As can be seen above, each of the mandates presents its own set of barriers and unintended consequences. The general response since the Penn State scandal broke is to push lawmakers to amend policies to include the most people as reporters and broadest interpretations of abuse as possible. However, many experts are now cautioning this approach as broad laws have been found to increase confusion of professionals about what is required of them as well as under-reporting since there is no clear guidance or training provided to professionals and especially to the general public. Also, there are concerns about what false reports can do to vulnerable families and children.

The best laws are those that answer the following questions in clear specific language:

– Who is required to report?

– What type of abuse and neglect are reportable?

– What level of suspicion is acceptable and how is this expressed?

– Are reporters required to report all sources of abuse or just parents/caregivers?

– Are any new types of abuse required? – poverty neglect, exposure to porn,

– Define by extent of harm  or report any occurrence

– Report only incidences of abuse or threats to future safety?

– How much time is given to make the report?

(Mandatory Reporting Legislation…Mathews and Kenny, Feb 2008, p 589)

Mandates that answer these questions equip mandated reporters to be knowledgeable about abuse and their responsibilities, feel supported in their actions, and know how to balance legal requirements and practice questions in order to help the CPS protect children. As a whole, vague legislative mandates lead professionals to feel uncertainty about specific legal requirements, fear of losing treatment alliance and other results reporting could have on their client-practitioner relationships. There is also a fear of making the situation worse such as retaliations against the child victim, and lack of faith in the child protection services ability and actions in reported cases. Later this week we will look into the barriers for mandate reporters and some of the policy recommendations and practice solutions that are out there.


For more resources about your individual state laws, signs and symptoms of abuse, and other issues surrounding mandated reporting, please see the following resources.

Child Abuse Reporting Statues (complied by National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect)

Child Welfare Information Gateway – Mandated Reporting publications

“Recognizing and Responding to Child Maltreatment” by Bilger et all


2 Responses

  1. […] Back in December we discussed the Penn State scandal and conducted a campaign to raise awareness about the basics of mandated reporting. But what has happened since then? Well, to bring you up to date on those happenings, and support Child Abuse Prevention and Sexual Assault Awareness month, we’d like to talk about two important issues as a follow up to that campaign. […]

  2. […] Background and Basics of Mandated Reporting […]

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