Youth Services Law

Mandated Reporting: Emotional Abuse

mother criticising daughter

One area of mandated reporting that is included in most state statutes but rarely explained is emotional abuse. I see emotional abuse listed often in training programs, but there is little discussion of what it looks like or when to report. I also have seen no prosecutions for failure to report emotional abuse. Nevertheless, emotional abuse is a mandated reporter’s responsibility in most states.

It is important to distinguish between definitions used in mental health fields and those in mandated reporter statutes. “Emotional abuse” or “psychological abuse” are trendy terms right now, and the definitions seem to be broad and ever-changing. One definition includes sarcasm and over-pressuring a child, while another includes constant criticism. The original groundbreaking survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences included questions about insults from family members and not feeling loved. These definitions no doubt are helpful in dealing with mental health issues, but they do not offer much guidance for mandated reporters. After all, it would be useless and counterproductive to call child protection every time a child reported an insult from a family member.

State statutes have much more restrictive definitions. North Carolina law, for example, requires reporting of “serious emotional damage,” which condition is “evidenced by a juvenile's severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior toward himself or others.” This focus on the effects of the abuse is more in line with the definitions of physical abuse or neglect in other statutes. This definition conceivably covers actions such as bullying in person or over social media, actions that we usually think of as school discipline problems rather than mandated reporter responsibilities.

Georgia has a similar definition. Its mandated reporter law does not specifically cover emotional abuse, but many of the training programs that I have seen include it as an indicator of other types of abuse. In the current environment, it is better to err on the side of reporting than to later argue over whether or not emotional abuse is included in the statute. Georgia’s definition is found in its child custody statutes, and covers psychological or intellectual injuries “evidenced by an observable and significant impairment in such child's ability to function within a child's normal range of performance and behavior or that create a substantial risk of impairment, if the impairment or substantial risk of impairment is diagnosed and confirmed by a licensed mental health professional or physician qualified to render such diagnosis.” This emphasis on a quantifiable diagnosis is more strict than most states, but seems to be an attempt to add an element of objectivity. Given the definition’s genesis as grounds to take custody of children away from their parents, the limitation makes sense. In our context of mandated reporter responsibilities and emotional abuse as an indicator of other types of abuse, again it is better to err on the side of caution and not wait for a definitive diagnosis.

Emotional abuse is a vague term, and may seem like an “I know it when I see it” standard. Know your state statues (a good resource is the state search at childwelfare.gov), and consult with your attorney or child protection authorities. You need to both fulfill your responsibility to protect children and avoid having to explain yourself to a state authority judging you after the fact.

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