Mandatory Reporting: Implications, Meanings, and Practice

We’ve been talking a great deal about mandated reporting the past few weeks expanding our knowledge about the topic, drilling down into some of the specifics, and thinking through some of the barriers for professionals and systems.  Now we’ve come to what the implications of that reporting might be for mandated professionals, families, individuals, and the children affected.

Since the Penn State scandal became public knowledge, there has been a firestorm of opinion and media and legislative activity across the United States. States are responding by reviewing current mandatory reporting laws and reinforcing who is responsible for reporting abuse and when they should be reporting. There is some individual outcry that everyone should be required to be a mandated reporter and others are opposed to the expansion of legislation, citing it will cause more harm than good. But, overall there is a general agreement that reporting laws are necessary but clarification is essential for them to be carried out properly.

Nancy Fagan, LCSW, a child-welfare specialist with Jewish Family and Children Services, wrote an opinion piece that reiterates the view point that everyone has a clear ethical and legal responsibility to report abuse, but that those responsibilities must be clarified and outlined.  Another writer from the Michigan CASA blog believes even more extremely that “when there is even a question or an inkling of abuse,” that you must assume that abuse is occurring until you are proven otherwise.

On the other end of the spectrum, in a November 27th opinion piece for the Hartford Courant, Joette Katz, the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families and former State Supreme Court Justice, said that she was against requiring everyone to become a mandated reporter. The piece cites that studies have not proven that extensive reporting laws have even helped to reduce the incidence or prosecution rate of abuse cases and in fact can increase the prevalence of spurious reports which take away from the investigation of legitimate cases being reported.

So in order to understand the implications of mandated reporting, one has to think about their own understanding about the subject. In a recent lecture on child protection laws, Margaret Lynch Professor of Community Pediatrics, King’s College, gave a lecture at the University College London on child protection laws, and as part of the lecture she provided an exercise that required participants to look at the subject of reporting from personal, public, and professional perspectives and confront their own understanding about the subject. One of the scenarios asked participants whether they would be suspicious of the idea of a father cuddling with his 11-year-old daughter in bed after she’s had a scare. Each person had a very different understanding of what should have been done or how they should have responded from a reporting perspective.

This scenario is a clear example of the implications of mandated reporting legislation. When presented with a possibly scenario of abuse, how do people respond? How do you know when it is abuse or when it’s not? In a room full of policy makers, doctors, and advocates every person had a different understanding about the presented scenario. They each would interpret legislation and guidelines differently. So do states push forward with the mindset that everyone should report if they have any reason to suspect abuse or should they follow the Commissioner’s advice for targeting reporting laws and cautioning guidelines?

A study published in Clinical Pediatrics in 2010, by Benjamin H. Levy and Kathryn Crowell, Child Abuse Experts Disagree About the Threshold for Mandated Reporting, attempted to see if setting forth guidelines for using reasonable suspicion for reporting abuse might help to create an overall threshold for the context of reporting abuse. However, they found that there really wasn’t any guidance that helped to determine the interpretation of the meaning of abuse. The study concluded that experts even showed a wide range of variation in defining that suspicion. Basically, there’s absolutely no consensus on how even experts can interpret suspicion. This and other studies also discuss that abuse investigations themselves can be just as traumatic as any suspected abuse, so there is no need to put a child through the trauma of the reporting process on an “inkling” of suspicion. This may especially be the case if everyone is a mandated reporter because they’ll start reporting anything because they’re afraid of facing penalties for not reporting.  If experts are not even clear about what reporting laws mean then it may be even more difficult for the average person to know what to look for as well.

Looking back at the exercise about child protection, we just have to keep in mind that everyone has an identity affected by their life experiences, beliefs, and culture that impact their understanding of abuse. The implications of mandated reporting laws can have a strong impact on everyone involved in the reporting process. So, this must be kept in mind as states review their laws and as people understand what abuse is and what constitutes reasonable suspicion for reporting.

While it isn’t always clear what is meant by “reasonable suspicion,” there are signs that you can look out for whether you are a practitioner, parent, teacher, or individual. Prevent Child Abuse America suggests the following:

What You Can Do: Recognize the Warning Signs

PINWHEELS FOR PREVENTION ™ CAMPAIGN

The behavior of children may signal abuse or neglect long before any change in physical appearance. Some of the signs may include:

  • Nervousness around adults
  • Aggression toward adults or other children
  • Inability to stay awake or to concentrate for extended periods
  • Sudden, dramatic changes in personality or activities
  • Unnatural interest in sex
  • Frequent or unexplained bruises or injuries
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor hygiene

They also provide a webpage that lists the steps to report and where to actually go to report.

What you can do: Report Suspected Abuse or Neglect

http://www.preventchildabuse.org/help/report_abuse.shtml

In addition the following website provides some guidelines for what reporters can expect and how to respond:

http://www.childhelp.org/pages/what-to-expect

If a child discloses that he or she has been abused by someone, it is important that you listen to them most of all.
(http://www.childhelp.org/pages/about-abuse)

DO NOT
•   Investigate
•   Ask leading questions (a question that suggests the answer or contains the information the questioner is looking for – That man touched you, didn’t he?)
•   Make promises
•   Notify the parents or the caretaker

DO
•   Provide a safe environment (be comforting, welcoming, and a good listener).
•   Tell the child it was not his/her fault
•   Listen carefully
•   Document the child’s exact quotes
•   Be supportive, not judgmental
•   Know your limits
•   Tell the truth and make no promises
•   Ask ONLY four questions
•   What happened?
•   Who did this to you?
•   Where were you when this happened?
•   When did this happen?
•   Asking any additional questions may contaminate a case!

Report it!
•   Call your local law enforcement agency
•   Call your local Child Protective Services Agency
•   Call the 24-Hour Childhelp® National Child Abuse Hotline and we will connect you to the appropriate agency.

Questions that will be asked when you call
http://www.dshs.wa.gov/ca/safety/abusereport.asp

  1. The name, address and age of the child.
  2. The name and address of the child’s parent, guardian or other persons having custody of the child.
  3. The nature and extent of the abuse or neglect.
  4. Any evidence of previous incidences.
  5. Any other information which may be helpful in establishing the cause of the child’s abuse or neglect and the identity of the perpetrator.

You do not need to have all of the above information when you call to make a report, but the more accurate information you can provide, the better equipped the offices will be to assess the child’s risk.

We’ve also included some further resources below that can help reporters clarify reporting laws and some further signs that you can look for if you suspect a child might be abused:

Prevent Child Abuse America

http://www.preventchildabuse.org/index.shtml

Child Abuse and Neglect Recognizing and Preventing Child Abuse

http://helpguide.org/mental/child_abuse_physical_emotional_sexual_neglect.htm

Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect: Summary of State Laws

http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/manda.cfm

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