Youth Services Law

Mandated Reporting: Neglect

Young boy running on road alone to school

One of the most difficult areas to navigate in mandated reporting issues is when to report neglect of a child. The laws are definite that you must report suspected neglect, but no one quite knows how to define it. Georgia, for example, does not define “neglect” in its mandated reporter law, but child protection authorities have adopted the definition from Georgia custody law of “failure to provide proper ... control necessary for a child’s physical, mental, or emotional health or morals.”

That is a very broad standard and can mean almost anything. I have seen it applied to place childcare center employees on the child abuse registry for not adequately supervising children, or directors who allegedly allowed too many children in a classroom in violation of licensing ratio requirements. News reports carry stories of parents charged with neglect for allowing children to walk home by themselves. Yet, there is no doubt that some parents are irresponsible and do not take care of their children. So where is the dividing line?

Unfortunately, it’s not a clear one. A good start is the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which requires the states to enact minimum standards of child abuse and neglect in order to receive federal funding. It defines abuse and neglect as actions or failure to act that results in harms including “serious physical or emotional harm,” or that “presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” The latter standard would be a sensible approach, in its emphasis on serious harm, rather than simple bumps, bruises and bites from another child (all cases that I have defended).

The requirement for “imminent risk” also would provide a realistic and sensible standard. Instead of worrying that a predator would snatch a child from the playground, we could recognize that 90% of sexual assaults are by people known to the children and 68% are from family members. We could also learn that allowing children to walk to school can be safer than driving them.

Another difficult situation arises when parents are not intentionally neglecting their children, but simply lack the financial means to provide everything that their children need. Some states exempt these situations from the definition of “neglect.” Other states want the reports, but recognize that the parents need assistance, not condemnation. We also can help those parents by finding community food banks or other resources to help them keep their families together. Many times, assistance from our organization or the community may make a report for neglect unnecessary.

Unfortunately, mandated reporter laws do not leave much room for us to exercise common sense. We can get involved in efforts to push back overreaching neglect laws and standards. Until then, we need to be aware of the standards that child protection authorities expect of us so that authorities looking in hindsight do not decide that we should have done more to protect child from adult neglect.

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