Lightbulb Moment: The Time is Now to Re-Evaluate Mandated Reporting Procedures

by Institute for Family | Mar 21, 2024

Explore the efficacy of mandated reporting procedures

What is the purpose of government policy? The School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University provides us with this definition:   

“Policies cover a wide range of objectives, like promoting public interest, resolving societal problems, allocating resources, and regulating behaviors, all with the common goal of increasing human flourishing.”  

Policies are put into place to protect individuals from negative consequences. For example, there are laws against texting while driving or driving drunk to ensure the safety of the driver and those around them. The Clean Air Act regulates air emissions to protect us from inhaling toxins and polluting our environment. The benefits of these policies have indubitably outweighed the cons, working to increase the quality of people’s lives in the US. However, despite our best efforts, sometimes policies do not end up helping; the very thing that the policy was designed to protect ends up being further jeopardized, potentially leading to significant harm.

Sometimes, in theory, a policy can potentially create positive change. However, when you intervene in people’s lives, you have unintended, unwanted effects. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) is a prime example, illustrating the unpredictable nature of policy outcomes.  

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A little over fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon signed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). CAPTA was envisioned as a response to the increasing concerns around child abuse throughout the country. Federal standards were agreed upon as the course of action. The most prevalent practice that came from CAPTA was mandated reporting. Mical Raz at Time magazine provided a compelling argument for why mandated reporting is not keeping children safe in the US. Raz highlights how instead of providing resources for children, the act encourages states to “spend considerably more on surveillance, investigation, prosecution, and family separation than on the provision of community and family strengthening resources.”

The bill, CAPTA, neglected to recognize the risk factors that contribute to instances of child abuse, such as poverty, lack of childcare, lack of housing, lack of access to health care, and racism. Light Paper: Poverty versus Neglect reviews all of these topics and breaks down the connection to family well-being. The Time magazine article ties in national data from the 2021 Child Maltreatment report on how reporting requirements, with many of the cases reported being due to manifestations of poverty or substance use rather than substantiated physical and sexual abuse. While there are scenarios where mandated reporting is a critical tool in protecting a child from a detrimental situation, ample evidence demonstrates the policy is falling short for many families.

Mandated reporting is one of the main strategies for addressing child abuse in our country. Research from the Child Maltreatment Journal has shown that states with expanded reporting protocols are demonstrated not to identify those who are in harm’s way more accuratelyThrough our partnership with StoryCorps Studios, one of our participants, Clara Marts, called attention to the issues she has seen around mandated reporting in practice. Clara is an Intensive Family Preservation Services Specialist for the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina.

In her story, she points out additional flaws of mandated reporting, citingwe need to see where the false was. When an ex-abuser is calling on his ex-wife or ex-girlfriend because she won’t come back to him, and they’ll call DSS (Department of Social Services) and make false allegations.” What was supposed to be a beacon of hope for those who needed support has become a strategy for over-surveillance.  

Check out Light Papers in the Light Lab for insightful conversations on family well-being topics.

So, the question boils down to: if we know that this policy is doing more harm than good, what can we do to change it?  Here, we’ll explore some strategies that aim to better support families.

1. In our Light Paper: Poverty versus Neglect, one recommendation suggests comprehensive training for mandated reporters to address the confusion between poverty and neglect. Mandated reporters must understand that reporting to Child Protective Services can be an extremely imperative decision to protect a child. Still, it is not the best way to ensure a child’s well-being in every case.  Benjamin Levi’s The Imprint article speaks to how many trainings for mandated reporters across the US take a “when in doubt, make a report” approach instead of adopting a critical thinking mindset. As mentioned in the paper, the iLookOut learning program is a great resource that walks mandated reporters through situations to address biases and encourage them to think more in-depth about situations. Additionally, the Institute for Family Center for Learning training, “Danger of a Single Story,” gives mandated reporters tools for viewing each family story as an individual and unique situation, forcing participants to analyze personal biases. We need to make mandated reporting an option rather than an absolute.

2. Another recommendation would be to shift from mandatory reporting to ‘mandatory supporter.’ The term ‘mandatory supporter’ has been coined by Just Making A Change for Families, better known as JMACforFamilies, and was created through a collaboration of social work students, advocates, and other experts in the field to support the research that provides evidence of how mandated reporting is not the best way to ensure children’s safety. JMACforFamilies’ curriculum adapts an alternative approach to protecting child welfare through a supportive framework that seeks to “center families through equitable, harm reductionist, and anti-racist practices while divesting from systems of surveillance and punishment.” The framework contains three modules: Mandated Supporting, Family Defense, and Scenario Practice. To learn more about this curriculum visit their website and contact Kamaria Excell, Director of Project Management through email. 

Overall, scholars have identified that when you are engaging with other’s lives, practices and policies should be rigorously evaluated and kept up to date with the research. CAPTA needs to be more evidence-based and up to best practices standards. As family advocates, we need to amplify the voices of those families who have experienced the consequences of the shortcomings of CAPTA and call for practices that address root issues and truly put families first so we can uphold our promise to families of doing more good than harm.  

Explore free trainings in the Center for Learning for families, professionals, and advocates.

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