by Kathryn Krase
Editor’s Note: This article is Part V of an ongoing series.
As a mandated reporter, the law requires that you make a report as soon as you have REASONABLE SUSPICION (or reasonable cause to suspect/believe) that child abuse or neglect is occurring or is about to occur. But what does reasonable suspicion mean, and how do you know you have it?
This confusion is completely understandable, especially because most reporters don’t want to jump the gun and be wrong, while simultaneously wanting to do what is right and protect a child in harm’s way. This article will help you by offering a process you can use to figure out if you have reasonable suspicion, thus requiring you to make a report to child protective services (CPS).
Am I Suspicious Enough?
When a mandated reporter, based on his/her training and experience in combination with what the reporter has observed/been told, entertains the possibility that a child is being abused and/or neglected or is in imminent danger of abuse or neglect, she or he has “reasonable suspicion.” It may be enough that explanations provided by a parent and/or child are inconsistent with your observations, experience, and/or knowledge. You do not need to be sure that child abuse or maltreatment has taken place, just reasonably suspicious (Lau, Krase, & Morse, 2009).
How Does Reasonable Suspicion Measure Up to Other Legal Standards
One way to get a better understanding of “reasonable suspicion” is to compare this legal standard with others that may be more familiar to you. The legal system uses various levels of evidence (otherwise known as standards, burdens, or degrees of proof). The burden of proof required in a legal action is the threshold needed to convince the fact-finder (usually the judge or jury) that an allegation is true.
There are different burdens of proof applied in different kinds of cases. The level of proof required in a legal proceeding generally relates to the seriousness of the consequences that a person faces if the allegation is found to be true. For instance, charges that carry mild consequences, such as a fine for a traffic ticket, have a lower burden of proof and therefore are easier to prove than those that carry serious consequences, such as a jail or prison sentence for an assault charge.
The highest burden of proof is found in criminal cases. In most criminal cases, the prosecution must prove that the defendant committed the crime he or she is accused of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that a juror can only vote to convict when the juror has no reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. Any and all jurors can still have doubt, but that doubt cannot affect a reasonable person’s belief that the defendant is still guilty (Kagehiro & Stanton, 1985). This means that before jury members can vote for conviction in a criminal case, they need to be close to 100% sure that the person committed the crime, based on the evidence presented to them.
For most cases in civil court, including family or juvenile courts, the standard most often used is “a fair preponderance of the evidence.” Simply put, this standard means that the burden of proof is met when the fact-finder determines that there is more evidence supporting the truth of an allegation as compared to evidence that the allegation is untrue. The fact-finder has to be more than 50% sure that the allegations are true to uphold an allegation under the “preponderance of the evidence standard.” This standard is most often used in Family Court when a judge determines whether a parent is abusive or neglectful.
Some states use “preponderance of the evidence” as the burden of proof for substantiating child protection cases after investigation. However, most states use a less rigorous standard of proof—“some credible evidence.” Under this standard, the fact-finder has met the burden when he or she has secured some minimal amount of evidence that is credible, even if she or he has also found evidence that is “incredible.” More simply put, the CPS worker can substantiate an allegation of abuse or neglect based on information from one person he or she deems reliable, even if there is information from one or more reliable people saying something different. Whereas the “preponderance of the evidence” standard requires at least a 50% likelihood of guilt, experts often measure “some credible evidence” at about 35%.
As compared with all the levels discussed above, reasonable suspicion is a lower burden of proof and could be quantified at around 10% to 15% likelihood of guilt. The reason lawmakers keep this standard so low is to encourage reports of suspicions, instead of discouraging them. This standard follows from the perspective that it is better to err on the side of protection of children.
At each stage of a CPS proceeding, a different burden of proof may be required to initiate action on behalf of the child and against the accused abuser. To summarize, if a social worker has reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect, he or she must make a report to alert the child protective authorities. At the conclusion of the investigation of that report, a “finding” or “indication” will be entered if “some credible evidence” or a “preponderance of the evidence” has been found (depending on the standard in the given state). If the degree of abuse and/or neglect is a major concern and the ongoing safety of the child is questionable, a petition against the parent may be filed in family court. In family court, the judge will examine the evidence against the parents and use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to weigh the proof. If the allegations indicate a crime may have been committed, the parents may also be arrested and prosecuted in criminal court. In criminal court, the judge or jury would apply the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
I Think I’m a Reasonable Person… But How Do I Know That My Concerns Are “Reasonable”?
We use the word “reasonable” all the time when we’re talking to each other, but the term “reasonable” has legal connotations that are important to understand. A belief or suspicion is reasonable if someone else with your education, training, and professional experience, would have the same suspicion. Reasonable suspicion can start with the feeling that something doesn’t feel right, but such a gut feeling, without other concerns, is not “reasonable.” You need to objectively identify and examine your biases and overcome those that might interfere with your ability to be reasonable. Supervision and consultation with supervisors and colleagues can be really helpful in this situation.
If you consult with a supervisor or colleague and that person agrees with you that your suspicions are reasonable and a report must be made, you have generally met the “reasonable suspicion” standard, since someone with similar education, training, and experience knowing what you know is just as suspicious as you. However, there may be a time when a supervisor or colleague does not agree with you. Perhaps he or she points out how you may be processing your suspicions through your own biases. If, based on consultation, you no longer feel suspicious, then you do not need to make a report. However, if you disagree with your colleague, and believe that your suspicions are still valid, then you are required to make a report to CPS.
In practice, you will find that in some cases you will make the decision to report easily. In other cases, you may struggle trying to determine whether your suspicions reach the threshold to report. Remember, it is not your responsibility to know or prove that a child has been abused or neglected, but only to have reasonable suspicion that such abuse or neglect has occurred. A report is not an accusation, but rather a request for an investigation of a suspicious situation.
Kagehiro, D. K., & Stanton, W. C. (1985). Legal vs. quantified definitions of standards of proof. Law and Human Behavior, 9, 159–178.
Lau, K., Krase, K., & Morse, R.H. (2009). Mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect: A practical guide for social workers. New York: Springer.
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.