Youth Services Law

Mandated Reporting is Not a Cure-All

Child in foster care

Minnesota Public Radio recently had an excellent report on the problems of homeless youth. One aspect that struck me was the unintentional consequences of mandated reporter policies:

From the report:

Another young woman said rules designed to protect kids experiencing abuse at home can actually be counter-productive. "A lot of kids do not want to speak out because CPS will be called." CPS is Child Protective Services, the state agency with the power to remove kids from unsafe homes and place them in foster care.

"If a teacher or a mandated reporter — which, of course their intentions are good — hears that you are homeless; whether it's couch-surfing, or you're staying at — we have a shelter here in Helena called God's Love — or something like that, CPS gets involved. And now I'm in a worse situation because you've just placed me in foster care home may be excellent, or may be terrible."

This report is an excellent example of the disadvantages of mandated reporter requirements. It currently is a popular trend to try to fight child abuse by strengthening mandated reporter laws. For politicians, it’s a quick fix that allows them to take a strong stand against abuse. For law enforcement and child protection authorities, stronger laws give them more power. For victims, however, stronger laws may be problematic. Whatever their other virtues, law enforcement officers do not provide therapy. Social services agencies can provide homes (sometimes), but children are more at risk for continued abuse in out-of-home care than with their families.

We actually do not have any evidence that stronger mandated reporter laws keep children safer. One recent study found that making everyone a mandated reporter, rather than specific professions, increased the number of calls, but had no effect on the number of confirmed reports. Another survey of available research found no evidence of benefits from mandated reporter laws, but many significant harmful experiences. At least one researcher has highlighted the unintentional harmful effects of mandated reporter laws.

Before we jump heedlessly into “strengthening” child abuse laws, we need more evidence that the laws actually help protect children. At the very least, we should recognize that combating child abuse requires more than feel-good simple solutions, but hard work and nuanced policies.

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