By: Kathryn Krase, Ph.D., J.D., MSW
Part I: What Does It Mean That I'm a Mandated Reporter?
Editor’s Note: “Making the Tough Call” is a special series of articles that will address social workers’ questions about mandated reporting of suspected child abuse. This is the first part of the series. Please welcome series writer Kathryn Krase.
You notice an awkward bruise on the upper arm of a child you’re working with. Or perhaps while you’re shopping at the mall, you see a parent grab a young child by the arm and spank them for touching something off limits. As a social worker, you’ve heard about child abuse and neglect, and probably learned about it, but what are you supposed to do in these situations?
You may have heard the term “mandated reporter” and wondered: Am I a mandated reporter? What exactly is a mandated reporter? What am I mandated to do? What am I supposed to report? The simple answer to the first question is “yes.” If you are a social worker, you are a mandated reporter. To answer the other questions, we need some context and more detail. This article will explain what a mandated reporter is and why there are mandated reporters. We’ll also discuss the social worker’s role as mandated reporter and tease out when you’re a mandated reporter, and when you’re not. Other articles in this series will provide more detail on what, when, and how to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect.
What is a mandated reporter?
Mandated reporters are individuals required by the law of a given state to report concerning suspicions. Most often the term “mandated reporter” refers to individuals required to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect, but in some states the law may require some people to report elder abuse, institutional corruption, or other behaviors. For the purposes of this article and series, we’ll be focusing on the role of social workers as mandated reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect.
Why are there mandated reporters?
Most social workers in practice today have always been mandated reporters, but mandated reporting itself is only about 50 years old, and the role of mandated reporter is constantly evolving. For the first 75 years of child protective systems in the United States, private agencies like the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children provided the means through which abused children were identified and protected from further harm. State and federal governments were largely removed from these processes until societal pressure required governmental response in the mid-twentieth century.
In 1962, an important research article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association began a movement that demanded governmental response (Kempe, Silverman, Steele, Droegemueller, & Silver, 1962). This article, written by a group of doctors led by C. Henry Kempe, reported on a study of pediatric x-rays that found an alarming number of children with a history of unexplained fractures. The only possible explanation the doctors could agree on was abuse. Abuse was once thought to be the problem of impoverished immigrant families with alcoholic fathers, but this study showed that abused children came from all walks of life.
In response to the discovery that child abuse was more prevalent than believed for generations, professional medical associations and other concerned constituencies lobbied state and federal governments for responsive legislation. One of the most popular policy proposals was mandating medical personnel to report suspicions of abuse to the police. The idea was that if medical personnel could identify and report suspicions of child abuse, the government could step in and prevent irreversible harm to the child, or even death. As a result of these advocacy efforts, by 1967 all 50 states and the District of Columbia had passed legislation that made medical personnel mandated reporters. The new policy was considered a great success. In New York State, for instance, within five years after passing the first mandated reporting law, child fatalities dropped by 50%.
Who are mandated reporters?
A criticism of early mandated reporter laws was that they were narrow and specific. For instance, the first laws only required medical personnel (such as doctors and nurses) to report their suspicions. It quickly became apparent that if the goal of mandating reporting was to prevent child abuse and resulting fatalities, then coverage under the law should extend to other professionals with regular contact with children and families, including teachers and social service workers. As a result of advocacy efforts from professional and child welfare organizations, the definition of mandated reporter has grown substantially over the past 50 years. Law enforcement officials, social service workers, educational personnel, and mental health professionals are among those mandated to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect in most, if not all, states. Social workers are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect in all fifty states.
Social workers as mandated reporters
Since social workers work with children and families in a variety of settings and roles, it makes sense that the law in all 50 states requires social workers to report their suspicions of child abuse and neglect. Although some social work settings—such as schools, hospitals, and mental health clinics—are more likely than others, like nursing homes, to yield suspicions of child maltreatment, all social workers regardless of setting are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect. As mandated reporters and ethical professionals, social workers have a professional obligation to seek out information to understand their legal requirement to report.
There were more than three million reports of suspected child abuse and neglect in 2011, yet there is no way of knowing exactly how many reports are based on the suspicions of social workers. However, more than one-half of all reports of suspected child abuse or neglect are made by professional reporters, including child care providers, educational personnel, law enforcement personnel, medical personnel, mental health professionals, and social services personnel (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2011). Since social workers serve communities in a variety of roles, reports from social workers could be classified into many of the categories listed above.
Are you ALWAYS a mandated reporter?
A frequent question of new social workers is: Am I always a mandated reporter? In other words, do social workers have to report suspicions of child maltreatment that involve friends, neighbors, or family members? What about the stranger on the street you suspect is abusing or neglecting his/her child? The answer to this question is completely dependent on what state you are in when your suspicion is developed.
For social workers in thirty-two (32) states, the answer is “no,” you are not always a mandated reporter. If you live in a state where there is a list of professional titles that are deemed mandated reporters, then you are only required to make a report when the suspicions you have regarding child abuse or neglect rise from your role as that professional. In other words: in these states, when you’re “wearing your social worker hat” in your social worker job, you are a mandated reporter. When you’re concerned with family members, friends, or neighbors, or when you’re helping the troubled family you see on the street, even if it’s on the way to work, you’re not in your professional role, and therefore not required to make that report. If your suspicions of child maltreatment develop outside the confines of your professional obligations, then you are not a mandated reporter. When you have suspicions that arise outside of your professional role, you CAN make a report, but you are NOT REQUIRED to make a report.
For social workers in eighteen (18) states (Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming), you are always a mandated reporter. As of March 2013, these 18 states and Puerto Rico require all adults, regardless of professional role, to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. In these states, you must report the suspicions you have concerning family, friends, neighbors, and that family you see on your way to work.
All states, regardless of who is required to report suspicions in that state, provide legal protections for those who report suspected child abuse or neglect. Each state provides some level of confidentiality of reporter identity and has laws designed to protect reporters from lawsuits by families who are reported. In order to benefit from these protections, the reporters must make the report in “good faith.” This means that the reporter made the report because he/she was concerned about the welfare of a child based on information provided or his/her own observations. These protections extend to the reporter even if the resulting investigation fails to find evidence of abuse or neglect.
The next article in this series will parse out the social worker’s responsibility to client confidentiality, with the legal requirement to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect.
Kempe, C. H., Silverman, F. N., Steele, B. F., Droegemueller, W., & Silver, H. K. (1962). The battered-child syndrome. Journal of the American Medical Association, 181 (1), 17.
Child Welfare Information Gateway http://www.childwelfare.gov
A service of the Children’s Bureau, Administration on Children and Families, United States Department of Health and Human Services. The Child Welfare Information Gateway connects child welfare and related professionals to information and resources to help protect children and strengthen families.
Prevent Child Abuse America
A private, nonprofit organization with the goal of protecting children through the prevention of child maltreatment at the local, state, and national levels.
Kathryn S. Krase, Ph.D., J.D., MSW, is an assistant professor of social work at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her Ph.D. in social work, her Juris Doctor, and her Master of Social Work from Fordham University. She has written and presented extensively on mandated reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect. She previously served as Associate Director of Fordham University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Family and Child, as well as Clinical Social Work Supervisor for the Family Defense Clinic at New York University Law School.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Spring 2013, Vol. 20, No. 2. Copyright White Hat Communications. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the publisher.