Since details of disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of young athletes came to light, legislators have been searching for ways to prevent such horrific, ongoing abuse. In particular, the revelations that multiple responsible adults may have been aware of the abuse and yet failed to report it — recently, Olympic champion McKayla Maroney said that she informed a coach after Nassar abused her in 2011 — have fueled calls for statutes expanding mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse.
While an expansion of mandatory reporting may seem logical, there is simply no evidence that it works. There is, however, plenty of reason to believe that increased reporting often further intensifies racial and socioeconomic disparities in child welfare involvement, including which children are removed from their homes.
Over the past 50 years, policymakers have promoted increased reporting as a solution to what is fundamentally a problem of services and resources. Without the ability to provide comprehensive support and services to struggling families, the government has instead focused its efforts on enhancing reporting, creating a culture that emphasizes investigation over assisting families in need.
Children at risk of physical and sexual abuse require swift intervention. Yet more reporting may actually contribute to making children less safe. A flood of reports from laypeople, which are less likely to be accurate (and are often focused on social issues tied to poverty, rather than actual abuse), thins out already underfunded resources, while turning the attention of caseworkers away from children who need immediate intervention.
Mandatory reporting began in the late 1960s as a response to what was touted as a new medical syndrome: child abuse. It began at the state level. In 1971, Florida became the first state to develop a hotline and a large-scale radio campaign to encourage reporting, and many other states followed suit.
Florida was viewed as a successful example of increased reporting. Yet many of the reports conflated abuse with poverty. For example, reports received in the first two years of the hotline’s existence overwhelmingly dealt with “malnutrition; physical neglect; disorganized family life; alcoholism; abandonment; and lack of food, clothing, or shelter.” While all of these situations may be dangerous to children, there is a distinct difference between families lacking food and shelter and children being abused.
Yet all these cases were lumped together. A 1974 radio announcement somewhat disingenuously proclaimed that “over 19,000 children were beaten, battered, burned, raped, starved, tortured, neglected and murdered.” Rather than highlighting how society was failing families that were often poor, hungry and homeless, these announcements exaggerated the prevalence of severe physical abuse while urging listeners to “save a life” by reporting struggling families.
The passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974 further pressured states to adopt federal standards as a requirement for federal funding for treatment and prevention programs. For instance, in 1975 South Dakota reluctantly added “mental injury” to their reporting requirement, to be eligible to receive funding for a child abuse program state officials were developing. Yet broadening the definition of child abuse caused much confusion and, as many experts had predicted, enabled discretion and bias in determining what in fact qualified as child abuse.
Even proponents of mandatory reporting wondered whether it had gone too far. Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), a longtime advocate for abused children, sponsored and developed CAPTA. Yet in 1975, when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare attempted to require further expansion of mandatory reporting, Mondale came out strongly against the change.
Mondale argued that the government has a duty to “safeguard families,” particularly “those who are poor and from minority groups,” from being caught up in a system that “could label them permanently as criminal or deviants” yet would lack the “resources to provide services.” Mondale added that he felt so strongly about this that, were the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to pursue these changes, he would “personally write to all our State legislatures and recommend that it not be adopted.”
By the late 1970s, reports of abuse and neglect disproportionately involved low-income and minority families. In a 1979 conference at the University of Pennsylvania, famed child psychiatrist Albert Solnit warned of the perils of expanded mandatory reporting. In a talk pithily titled “Too Much Reporting, Too Little Services,” Solnit argued that family privacy was frequently “coercively invaded” after reports “based on life style difference, and on prejudice against minorities, single-parent families and low income families.”
The problem: While serious physical and sexual abuse of children is a medical diagnosis, the definition of neglect remains cultural and context-dependent. A 1973 statute in Idaho, for instance, took a broad view of “emotional neglect,” allowing the court to take charge of a child whose behavior indicated “social or emotional maladjustment.”
Four decades later, little has changed. Bystanders have called the police for children playing in the park, riding the bus or waiting in a car as their parents run a quick errand. A number of vocal parents have organized to fight such allegations of “neglect” and to allow parents the freedom to choose how to supervise their children. In Utah this year, advocates were successful in passing a law that explicitly allows parents the right to choose whether their children play with supervision.
Yet poor families, particularly those belonging to underrepresented minorities, often lack the material resources needed to fend off spurious allegations and intrusive investigations. While some middle-class families may elect to “free-range” their kids, poor parents are subject to oversight and are more likely to be arrested.
In Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of the Penn State sexual abuse case, the commonwealth passed 24 pieces of legislation amending its Child Protective Services Law and criminal code. These legislative changes have focused on expanding the definition of child abuse and those required to report it. But there is no evidence that children in Pennsylvania are safer now than before these changes. In fact, many within the child welfare system express concern that the combination of increased reports, higher caseloads and public scrutiny has led to increased burnout and turnover in an already high-stress environment. This spreads resources thin and may place the children who need immediate intervention at risk of being overlooked.
As states respond to the Nassar case, it’s important to understand what reporting does and doesn’t do. Reporting in and of itself does not keep children safer, and it cannot be a substitute for public health and social-services interventions. More reporting is not the same as more-accurate reporting. Ensuring access to social services, health care, addiction treatment, food and shelter would go much further than expanding a system that simply creates more reports.