Mandatory Reporting Laws: Child Abuse and Neglect

Incidences of child abuse and neglect have a profound effect on the lives of many children across the United States. 

Therefore, all states have set in place variations of mandatory reporting laws in order to uncover abuse, neglect, and to prevent maltreatment in the future. These laws help ensure that cases of child abuse are reported to the proper authorities. That way social workers, police, and courts can intervene when necessary. Mandatory reporting supports state goals of rescuing children from danger and helping families in need.

What are mandatory reporting laws?

Mandatory reporting laws for child abuse vary by state. The term child abuse covers a wide range of misconduct. It can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. However, it's important to remember that many of these laws also cover child neglect.

In some states, these laws designate people in certain professions as mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect. When one of these professionals has reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect, they must report it to a proper authority, such as local law enforcement or the child protection agency. In other states, the mandatory reporting laws provide that any person who suspects child abuse or neglect must report it.

What types of child abuse or neglect must you report?

Most state laws provide some guidance on the actions or inactions that present reasonable cause for child abuse or neglect. Local law enforcement and child protection workers can also provide definitions of abuse or neglect. A non-exhaustive list of types of reportable child abuse or neglect includes:

  • Non-accidental physical injury
  • Sexual exploitation or abuse
  • Failure to provide for basic needs
  • Mental health or emotional mistreatment
  • Denial of health care
  • Parental alcohol or substance abuse
  • Abandonment or failure to supervise that has a negative impact on a child's well-being

Who must report child abuse?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), all 50 states have some form of mandatory reporting laws. These laws mandate certain people to report child abuse and neglect. Most often, those mandated to report have frequent contact with children because of their occupation. The following is a sampling of mandatory reporters of child abuse according to state:

  • California: The state has a long list of mandatory reporters. It includes teachers, teacher's aides, employees of day camps and youth centers, childcare workers, foster parents, social workers, physicians, nurses, chiropractors, optometrists, police, EMT, firefighters, coroners, medical examiners, and clergy members. (See California Penal Code section 11165.7)
  • New York: The state has a comprehensive list of mandatory reporters in the statute. These include: physicians; dentists; nurses; licensed therapists; social service workers; emergency shelter employees; childcare workers; teachers and other school employees; counselors; mental health professionals; peace officers; and district attorneys. (See New York Social Services Law, article 6, section 413)
  • Texas: The state requires that any person with reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect of a child must report it. It provides specific protocols for certain professionals licensed by the state or who are employees of facilities licensed by the state and have direct contact with children, like school teachers, nurses, doctors, and juvenile probation officers. (See Texas Family Code section 261.101)

Many states also have institutional reporting laws. These laws refer to individuals who work or volunteer for mandated reporters. At times, these persons may gain knowledge during their employment that may lead them to suspect abuse. In these situations, states may direct the staff member to alert the head of the institution when they believe that the organization should notify a child welfare or law enforcement agency.

These protocols within the institution help to ensure that the proper authorities receive a complaint. Still, many state laws do not differentiate between professionals or institutions. They expect that a mandated reporter who has a suspicion of child abuse or neglect will report it.

What should mandatory reporters do?

Situations in which mandatory reporters must make a report of child abuse vary depending on state mandatory reporting laws. However, according to HHS, there are typically two standards for when a report should be made:

  • When the reporter, in their professional capacity, has reason to believe or suspects that a child has been abused or neglected
  • When the reporter observes a child's circumstances or otherwise knows the child faces circumstances that would reasonably result in harm to the child

Generally speaking, state law will outline when and how a mandatory reporter must report child abuse. Some states provide specific protocols for the timing of a report or referral to law enforcement officers or the Department of Social Services.

States may also provide directives on how a person makes the report. For example, in Ohio, a mandatory reporter must make their report immediately. They can make an oral report by phone or an in-person report. If the child protective services agency or police officer requests it, the reporter must provide a later written report. In such a case, the reporter must include:

  • The names and addresses of the child, the child's parents, or the person who has custody of the child (if known)
  • The child's age and the nature and extent of any injuries, abuse, or neglect known or suspected
  • Additional information, including results and reports of medical examinations of the child

In most states, the law will provide confidentiality to the reporter's identity. However, many states do require the mandatory reporter to provide their name and contact information as part of the initial report. This information will go to government officials who will be conducting an investigation.

States often provide immunity from civil and criminal liability for persons who make a good faith report under these laws. This encourages mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. It can also reduce the fear that any reporter has that the alleged perpetrator or their family members will come after them in court.

What happens when a mandatory reporter does not report?

By design, mandatory reporting laws attempt to bring more reports of child abuse to light so that the proper authorities can investigate. Most states also encourage permissive reporting of child abuse. They ask members of the public to report, whether their job makes them mandatory reporters or not.

To address possible misconduct by mandatory reporters and others, states often enact criminal offenses for those who fail to report and for those who file false reports. For example, Minnesota law provides that a mandatory reporter who fails to perform their duty can face misdemeanor charges. Likewise, the state provides a separate misdemeanor offense for filing a false child abuse report. In Minnesota, filing a false report of child abuse occurs when someone:

  • Informs another person that a person committed sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect of a child
  • Knows that the allegation is false, or is without reason to believe that the alleged abuser committed the abuse or neglect
  • Has the intent that the information influence a child custody hearing

Learn About Your State's Mandatory Reporting Laws: Speak to a Local Attorney

Whether or not you are a mandatory reporter of child abuse and neglect, you can take action to learn more and prevent harm to children. The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline can help refer you to resources in your area. Call 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

Failure to follow the mandatory reporting requirements can result in criminal penalties. It may also subject a child to continued abuse or neglect. If you have questions about the mandatory reporting laws in your state, consider speaking with an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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