by Maggie Bender, MSW
As a graduating social worker interested in working with children and their families, I am going into the field with the belief that to see progress and change within a child, the entire family must be engaged and encouraged to participate. Family work can be complicated and challenging, however. One aspect of the work that I have found particularly challenging is holding the dual roles of advocate and support to families while simultaneously being a mandated reporter.
Prior to entering grad school, I had worked with children in a few different social service capacities, mainly through residential group homes, after-school programs, and community respite. In these agencies, parents were often seen as barriers to their child’s successes. They were often treated with a subtle animosity when involved in their child’s treatment. It was not until graduate school that I began to receive an education and work in placements that emphasized family involvement as crucial to the process of doing clinical work with children.
During my second year in grad school, I was placed in a day treatment school setting for adolescents. The children were our clients; however, we were strongly encouraged to engage the entire family unit in the treatment process.
I started the year reaching out to families of my clients, ensuring that their participation on the treatment team was needed and valued. My first couple of months were spent nurturing not only my therapeutic relationship with my clients, but with their families, as well. For some of my clients, I had interventions find their footing only after receiving support and insight from the parents.
These experiences confirmed and reiterated to me the power and importance of working with the family in clinical work with children. This is not to say that there were not challenges in engaging families. However, in my work, I will say that when I was able to meet the families where they were, engage them in addressing the issues in the family or with their children, and work with them collaboratively to develop interventions, I saw the greatest strides of progress.
The Elephant in the Room
However, even in the most engaged, collaborative family, there always seemed to be an elephant in the room in the beginning stages of engagement. At the beginning, one of the items I discussed with the families was mandated reporting. I would explain to parents that I wanted to support them and get support from them in assessing their child and ensuring that their child’s needs were being safely met. In discussing their child’s needs and safety, I would also explain that sometimes this would mean needing to make a report if there was suspicion of child maltreatment or abuse. However, I would say, if a report would ever need to be made, I would want to do so with their full knowledge, if possible, to ensure that open communication and collaboration could remain within the treatment team.
I would often experience a mix of emotions as I introduced this topic with parents, as I am sure the parents did, too. I felt proud for acknowledging the awkward reality of mandated reporting in working with families. I felt nervous that the hypothetical situation I was describing could very easily become a reality. I felt scared that even bringing up mandated reporting would cause the parents to shut down and become resistant to any further work.
However, I found that in acknowledging the elephant, parents were willing to talk about mandated reporting. For a few families, it even allowed a dialogue to be opened up about past experiences in which reports had been made without their knowledge. It appeared that acknowledging past frustrations and being able to open up about previous experiences in which they were reported acted as a tool to break down some resistance in some of the families that I had been feeling. By being able to discuss the possibility of reporting as one of the realities of our work together, I felt that it helped to better align ourselves as a team. This conversation, for the most part, ended up going well with most of my families, and for some even served as a jumping off point for our work together.
Making a Report
The first time I had to report one of my families, however, I felt anything but fine. As I mentioned, I had worked with families and children in different settings before, and I had made reports of suspected abuse or maltreatment while in these settings. However, these reports had been made confidentially without the family knowing I was the one making the report. I had never been in the position of making a report and openly discussing it with the parent. Discussing the hypothetical scenario of including the parent in the reporting process had sounded good in theory. In practice, it felt much more daunting.
A while back, a child came to me reporting that his head hurt. He said that his mom had hit him over the head. The nurse and I assessed his head and found a small mark that aligned with the child’s report. I discussed the incident with my supervisor, and we both agreed that a report needed to be made. Because I had a relationship with his mom and because the child would be with us at school for the remainder of the day, we decided it would be all right for me to contact her before making the report. I had been working intensively with this family all year, and although there had never been suspected abuse prior to this, there had been concern about adequate supervision and confusion about reliability from both my client and his mother.
I was nervous as I made the call, but again, this was a mom with whom I had an established relationship. In making this call and including her in the process of reporting, I was doing what I said I would do when I began services with this family. I was upholding my word from our unofficial agreement that we had made when we began treatment. I was not naïve in calling her, knowing that this could damage our cohesive partnership, but I did think calling her first could allow the potential for our therapeutic relationship to be repaired and remain open.
When I explained the situation to the boy’s mother, she was upset and reported feeling frustrated that her son would make this claim. She reported that she had not hit her child and was adamant that the story was inaccurate. She went on to tell a very different story as to how her child had been injured. She said she believed her son was making the story up to get back at her for a previous incident.
I acknowledged her feelings and ensured that she was heard. I engaged her in a conversation and obtained information about her child’s well-being in the home. I then let her know that because of my position as a mandated reporter, and as we had discussed previously, I had to make a report. I emphasized that I would be sure to include in the report that I had spoken with her and that she provided an alternative story. She became very angry, expressed this anger, and hung up. I then did as I am mandated to do. I made the report.
Reflections on Reporting
The report was accepted, and as I hung up the phone, I felt a rush of mixed feelings. I felt guilty—extremely guilty—feeling as though I had betrayed a family with whom I had worked so hard to build a relationship. Within one claim and a report, I felt as though I had distanced myself from the family I was working with and felt forced to align with a system that does not always work in the favor of families. I felt nervous about what would happen next, both between my client and his mom, and between his mom and myself. I felt anxious, wondering if I had done the right thing and wondering if the call really was justified. I felt sad at the potential that the child’s report was accurate. How must he have felt in coming to me to tell me what happened? I also felt curious, wondering whose story was accurate, knowing that both the client and his mom had issues with accurate reporting. I also felt angry. A part of me was angry about being put in the position to make the call in the first place. And I felt angry that the family’s privacy was going to be invaded by a flawed system that is supposed to be supportive of the family but may end up hindering them.
Ultimately, the most comforting thought I had during this process was reminding myself that the object of a report is not to determine whether abuse or maltreatment has taken place. Rather, a report is made so Child Protective Services or local agencies can assess whether abuse or maltreatment has taken place (New York State Mandated Reporter Resource Center, 2015). Our job as mandated reporters is simply to report. They will assess and decide the rest. Even if I felt conflicted while making the report, I had done what I needed to do to protect my client and myself.
As social workers, we are often placed in difficult positions that many other professionals may avoid. We are asked to engage and to meet families where they are, while simultaneously holding the knowledge that if they disclose maltreatment, we will have to report it. It is an ambiguity and a reality that requires gentle treading.
Since this initial report, I have had to make other reports, and I have witnessed co-workers and co-interns having to make reports and being met with the challenge of how and when to include parents. It appears that each report ends up being and feeling different, but ultimately there are similar ambivalent emotions I recognize from my initial call. And I guess that is why I wanted to write on this topic.
When I made that first call, in my insecure state, I wanted to be assured that other people had felt this way when having to make a report on a family they worked with. And even now, in reflecting on the initial call, knowing the mother’s reaction, I still would not have done it any other way. Had I chosen not to tell the mother that I was making the report, she could have easily deduced that it was me, creating even more distrust and resistance in our work. Ultimately, in collaborating with the mom in the reporting process, I feel that it will allow our therapeutic relationship to repair and rebuild in a way that may not have been possible had she not been told. Although more challenging and potentially uncomfortable, I feel it is the open and authentic way to continue to develop and maintain therapeutic relationships with families.
New York State Mandated Reporter Resource Center—Home. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2015, from http://nysmandatedreporter.org/.
Maggie Bender is an MSW graduate of NYU’s Silver School of Social Work. She is interested in continuing to work with families and children in New York City, with a focus on trauma and mental health.