She doubted the parents were neglectful, but failing to report suspected child abuse or neglect was a crime. So to play it safe, she reported the family anyway, knowing her identity would never be disclosed.
This all too common vignette is the origin of many unnecessary CPS investigations.
Child abuse is a serious problem, but the laws meant to help fight it frequently do more harm than good by going after innocent parents, often because they were reported by a mandatory reporter.
Every state has a mandatory reporting law which requires certain individuals to report known or reasonably suspected child abuse or neglect—often with criminal penalties for failing to do so.
These laws are typically broad, vague, and overall unhelpful. They employ language such as “reasonably suspects” or “has reason to believe” when setting the mandatory reporting standards. The suspicion can even be of “mental neglect” or “mental welfare” being “adversely affected.” Such ambiguous terms are open to interpretation and leave mandatory reporters to decide whether they would rather be safe or sorry.
Being “safe” means avoiding potential future penalties by reporting families, and this option is frequently chosen.
For 2021, the most recent year with available data, CPS agencies nationwide received a national estimate of 3,987,000 total referrals, involving an estimated 7,176,600 children.1 Of these referrals, approximately 635,824 children or 8.9% were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.2 This means over 90% of children reported as being suspected victims of abuse or neglect were determined by CPS not to be. Though CPS hotline/intake units screened out some of these referrals, most were not. Approximately 3,575,974 children were in referrals screened in as reports and subjected to investigation. Of those reports investigated, around 17.8% were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.3 This means over 82% of children reported as being suspected victims of abuse or neglect, and which were also screened in for an investigation, were determined by CPS not to be victims of abuse or neglect.
So a lot of reports are being made, and a lot of investigations are being done, of innocent families. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of these unfounded reports come from mandatory reporters.
Some states have detailed listings of specified mandatory reporters. Their failure to report can lead to losing a professional license as well as general criminal and/or civil liability. Many states make every person in the state a mandatory reporter.
Common mandatory reporters include medical professionals, school workers, child care providers, law enforcement officers, counselors, and of course, social workers or other government employees. Attorneys and clergy are sometimes included as mandatory reporters, which will be the topic of a different Law and Policy study.
Although these laws were intended to reduce child abuse, every year they result in millions of unfounded reports and investigations against hundreds of thousands of innocent families.
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1 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2023). Child Maltreatment 2021, at 8. Available from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/report/child-maltreatment-2021. Note that all of these numbers are based on a duplicate count, meaning that children involved in more than one referral are counted multiple times. This ensures an apples-to-apples comparison.
2 Id. at 32. Table 3–2 Children Who Received an Investigation or Alternative Response by Disposition, 2021. 635,824 is the sum of the national total of substantiated and indicated reports. Note that all of these numbers are based on a duplicate count, meaning that children involved in more than one referral are counted multiple times. This ensures an apples-to-apples comparison.
3 Id. at 20. Exhibit 3–B Children Who Received an Investigation or Alternative Response by Disposition. See also, Table 3–2. Note that all of these numbers are based on a duplicate count, meaning that children involved in more than one referral are counted multiple times. This ensures an apples-to-apples comparison.