It’s been almost three years since the Jerry Sandusky scandal dominated the nation’s headlines. Although there is nothing positive about the events leading up to Mr. Sandusky’s indictment, arrest and ultimate conviction, in the wake of the scandal, there have been some positive outcomes. One such positive outcome is the national conversation that began as a result, focusing on the issues with which we grapple every day.
Among those issues is that of mandated reporters – who is, and who is not, and who should be. Many of those engaged in the conversation called for universal mandated reporting, such that every adult assumes the obligation of reporting suspected child abuse. On its face, this may not seem terribly controversial. But many have questioned the wisdom of such a proposal, worrying that the unintended consequence may be that the child welfare system is inundated by reports made by untrained, non-professionals, resulting in a tremendous upsurge in the number of unsubstantiated cases that child protective services must investigate.
So researchers Vincent Palusci, from the New York University School of Medicine, and Frank Vandervort, from the University of Michigan Law School, decided to tackle the issue head on, and the results of their study are published in an article entitled “Universal reporting laws and child maltreatment report rates in large U.S. counties.” The authors acknowledge that there have been other studies examining this same issue but noted that “other factors such as specific-state definitions and population characteristics such as poverty were not taken into account.” Id., p. 21.
By contrast, Palusci and Vandervort set out to examine the following:
- To evaluate the relationship of total and confirmed maltreatment report rates with state reporting laws requiring all adults to report suspected abuse and neglect;
- To determine whether child and community demographic characteristics modify these effects; and
- To assess whether these relationships, if any, hold with confirmed reports of specific child maltreatment types.
Id., p. 22.
To do so, they used data from the NCANDS dataset from the year 2000, for “counties where 1000 or more reports were made…. This resulted in 754,225 total reports in 213 counties in 18 states, with 252,390 confirmed reports being available for analysis.” Id. Within these 18 states, the researchers’ “review of state laws identified 9 states in the year 2000 where all adults were mandated to report suspected child maltreatment.” Id., p. 24. The researchers analyzed the data “[i]n a full model controlling for all child and community demographic characteristics, [and] the amount of increase or decrease in rates associated with mandated reporting laws was adjusted for all the independent variables.” Id.
Their findings show that overall, the total number of reports for states with universal reporting requirements versus those without is “similar, but a larger difference is noted for confirmed report rates. Among the 213 counties in 18 states used in this study, higher report rates and higher confirmed rates were noted when the state had a law requiring all adults to report suspected CM (child maltreatment).” Id.
But the result is not as simple as it may appear. On further analysis, the researchers found that universal reporting requirements were “associated with significantly higher total and confirmed report rates for neglect but not other CM types. Child gender, race, ethnicity, middle school attendance, poverty, and crime modified this association, sometimes with large effect sizes.” Id.
What do these findings mean for those of us in the field? On the one hand, the authors note that the higher numbers of reports of neglect could indicate that “non-professionals who have more contact with these children [are] recognizing a problem in the family rather than waiting for a professional to see a more serious issue…. Perhaps reporting neglect results in decreased abuse later, which is plausible given that substantial proportions of PA, SA and PM occur in the context of neglectful families which may be less visible to professionals outside the family.” Id., p. 25.
On the other hand, “this study suggests that additional reports will be made but not necessarily that more maltreated children will be found, especially for more serious CM such as physical and sexual abuse.” Id. Moreover, with universal reporting, rates of reporting may increase as much as “25% or higher based on the findings from this study. While individual and community-level factors will affect report rates, this may place an undue burden on already overburdened child welfare systems with little resulting improvement in the identification of child abuse and neglect.” Id.
While this study may raise more questions than it answers, the questions are important ones, and ones greatly in need of community-wide discussion. I urge you to download this article, read it in full, and share it widely with your colleagues and community members, particularly those community leaders contemplating universal reporting requirements.