A recent study concluded that states whose mandated reporter laws require only a suspicion of abuse, rather than a reasonable belief, show higher levels of reports of abuse. Conversely, those states have a lower level of substantiated cases. The researchers categorized the laws of each state as requiring either suspicion of abuse or belief that abuse has occurred. They then used the data that each state reported to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System to compare the number of reports and number of substantiations for each state.
I do disagree with the study’s characterization of Georgia‘s as requiring “belief” that abuse has occurred. The law actually requires a report when listed personnel have “reasonable cause to believe that suspected child abuse has occurred” (emphasis added). Accordingly, I would put Georgia in the “suspicion“ category rather than “belief.”
That disagreement aside, the study does raise some important questions about mandated reporter laws. As the researchers noted, ”[T]he very experience of being reported for suspected child abuse can cause significant distress and/or disruption to a family, and when unwarranted is quite likely to be harmful. Furthermore, child welfare interventions can themselves have deleterious effects.” Furthermore, over-reporting “unnecessary burdens to an already resource-strapped CPS system.”
Thus, our goal should not be simply to increase the number of mandated reports. Rather, we need to increase the number of substantiated reports. According to this study, statutory language requiring belief rather than suspicion of abuse correlated to higher substantiation rates. The study also noted higher substantiation rates in states that required universal reporting rather than specific jobs.
Correlation is not causation, and there are many factors, such as training and screening policies, that this study did not address. Nevertheless, it does add another data point. More important, it asked the right question of how to increase substantiated reports of child abuse, not just overall reports.