London blogger gets survivors talking with #ididnotreport

By London Feminist blogger Julian
Julian is a London blogger who describes herself as a “lawyer, an armchair politician, activist, wannabe writer… [and] a member of London Feminist Network [and] the UK Legal Feminist Group.”

Last month, I began an impromptu campaign on Twitter using the hashtag #ididnotreport.  It arose after I blogged about the Mumsnet campaign “We Believe You,” which focuses on the response of blanket disbelief to reports of rape and sexual assault.  I’d also seen a recent opinion piece in a newspaper about street harassment, which also touched on lack of belief as a reason not to report assaults.

There have been over 20,000 tweets using that hashtag.  I had imagined a few women joining in to share experiences of street harassment, but what I saw instead was an outpouring of accounts ranging from low-level harassment to vicious rapes, from a huge variety of people – female, male, old, young, of all backgrounds.  Perhaps the most striking, and certainly the most shocking, were those which detailed child sexual abuse:

#ididnotreport being sexually assaulted as a 12year old because I didn’t know it was an option. A year later, he raped my friend.

[Same poster] That was reported. She was blamed & social workers told her she’d be sent away to a children’s home if she prosecuted. #ididnotreport

#ididnotreport because I was a child and I didn’t understand that I had no reason to be ashamed.

#ididnotreport because who would I report to? It’s hard when you’re 11 and you know you’ll never escape and no one is on your side.

#ididnotreport because I wanted to protect my family. The ones who shouldve been protecting me. I was a child.

#ididnotreport because I didn’t know it was rape. And because I was 14.

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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


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

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

If a child discloses that he or she has been abused by someone, it is important that you listen to them most of all.

•   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

•   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

  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

Child Abuse and Neglect Recognizing and Preventing Child Abuse

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

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

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