QUT Digital Repository:
Mathews, Benjamin P. and Bross, Donald C. (2008) Mandated reporting is still a policy
with reason: empirical evidence and philosophical grounds. Child Abuse and Neglect,
32(5). pp. 511-516.
© Copyright 2008 Elsevier
Mandated reporting is still a policy with reason: empirical evidence and
A major criticism of mandated reporting laws is that they produce many unsubstantiated reports,
increasing workload for child protective services, wasting resources, and reducing the quality of
service given to known deserving children and families (Ainsworth, 2002). Some critics go further:
Melton (2005) claimed mandated reporting is now “a policy without reason”. Melton stated “the
primary problem is no longer case-finding” (2005, p. 10), and argued that “common sense and
empirical research” show mandated reporting is “a bankrupt policy” (2005, p. 15). Further, Melton
proposed that jurisdictions with these laws should revise their systems “to facilitate voluntary
assistance to children and families—to create or sustain the norms of caring that prevent harm to
children” (2005, p. 15), and urged countries without a US-type system to adopt another model.
However, we argue that without a system of mandated reporting, a society will be far less able to
protect children and assist parents and families, because many cases of abuse and neglect will not
come to the attention of authorities and helping agencies. We accept that mandated reporting
schemes are imperfect. But, using child safety as the primary concern, and drawing on evidence
from several nations, we argue that a child protection system needs a form of case identification
beyond voluntary help-seeking; that mandated reporting produces a large number of substantiated
reports and to sacrifice this compromises child protection; that the most serious problems in
systems having mandated reporting appear to lie not with the reports, but with responses; and that
the economic and social justice advantages of mandated reporting far outweigh any disadvantages.
The need for a system of referrals by professionals of suspected abuse and neglect
Without a system where people outside abused or neglected children’s families bring the
children’s circumstances to the attention of authorities, many and perhaps most cases will remain
hidden. While in some cases a child may disclose abuse to an adult who then reports it, children are
rarely the direct source of their own referral, accounting for 0.5% of substantiated reports in the
USA in 2004 (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006, p. 20), and 2% of substantiated
reports in Canada (excluding Quebec) in 2003 (Trocmé et al., 2005, p. 876). Parents, who inflict
most abuse and neglect, do not usually seek assistance. In the USA in 2004, only 0.1% of
substantiated reports were made by alleged perpetrators and a further 4% by nonperpetrating
parents (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006, p. 20); in Canada (excluding
Quebec) in 2003, parents made 11% of all substantiated referrals (Trocmé et al., 2005, p. 86).
A society with mandated reporting will have more cases of abuse and neglect brought to the
attention of authorities than will a society with no such system. Others agree with this (e.g.,
Besharov, 2005), and jurisdictions that have introduced the laws are known to experience a sharp
rise in substantiated (and unsubstantiated) referrals. Besharov (1985, p. 545) declared “there is no
dispute that the great bulk of reports now received … would not have been made but for the passage
of mandatory reporting laws and the media campaigns that accompanied them.” Based on National
Incidence Study figures, Besharov (2005, p. 287) estimated that due to increased reporting and
investigation and treatment services, annual child deaths in the USA have fallen from 3,000-5,000
to about 1,100. While not conclusive, partly due to definitional differences, recent substantiation
rates of abuse and neglect per 1,000 children in jurisdictions with mandated reporting compared to
those without it arguably indicate the superiority of mandated reporting in revealing deserving
cases. In England in 2005/06, and in Western Australia in 2004/05, two jurisdictions without
mandatory reporting, the rates were 2.4 (Department for Education and Skills, 2006); and 2.3
(Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2006, p. 21). In contrast, where mandatory reporting
exists (Mathews & Kenny, 2007), the USA (2004), Canada (2003) and Australian jurisdictions
(2004/05) recorded rates of 11.9 (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006, p. 23),
13.89 (Trocmé et al., 2005, p. 35) and a range from 5.5-14.1 (Australian Institute of Health and
Welfare, 2006, p. 21).
Numbers and proportions of substantiated reports made by mandated reporters
Professionals who are mandated reporters contribute a large majority of substantiated referrals,
accounting for 67.3% of substantiated cases in the USA in 2004 (US Department of Health and
Human Services, 2006, p. 10), and 75% of all substantiated cases in Canada in 2003 (Trocmé et al.,
2005). Australian data does not show this proportion, but use of other data (Australian Institute of
Health and Welfare, 2006, p. 57) and analysis yields an estimate of 58.01%. As well, significant
proportions of these referrals are substantiated. Excluding referrals screened out, in the USA,
professionals’ referrals were substantiated at a rate of 35.12% (US Department of Health and
Human Services, 2006, Table 2-5), and in Canada, 53% were substantiated, with a further 12%
suspected (Trocmé et al., 2005, p. 88).
This is not to claim mandated reporting even approaches a perfect system of casefinding. Even
with it, many cases evade the attention of authorities. Professionals who come into contact with
abused and neglected children will not report a significant proportion of cases, for reasons
including lack of confidence in CPS and fear of misdiagnosis (e.g., Flaherty et al., 2006; Flaherty,
Jones, & Sege, 2004; Kenny, 2004). A large proportion of cases known to professionals will be
officially unrecognized and therefore ignored (e.g., Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996), and many
“unsubstantiated” cases will be abusive or neglectful but will lack sufficient evidence to
substantiate. As well, there remains a large reservoir of cases which will not become known to any
authority figure (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996). Case-finding remains a massive challenge.
The current success of mandated reporters in disclosing cases can be enhanced, and problems
with reporting can be reduced. The substantiation rate of all referrals including those screened out is
low in the USA (15.92%) and Australia (18.25%), but as a proportion of all investigated referrals
increases in the USA to 25.7% (with another 3% indicated), in Australia to 51.63%, and in Canada
to 49% (with another 12% suspected). As well, a good argument can be made that substantiation
rates alone should not be used to claim the failure of mandated reporting, because, for example,
many unsubstantiated cases do receive services (Drake & Jonson-Reid, 2007). Even so, many agree
that legislation, reporter training and public education should more clearly define what should and
should not be reported. The concept of “reasonable suspicion” may be more plainly conveyed
(Besharov, 2005). Mandated reporters should receive thorough training (Flaherty, Jones, & Sege,
2004; Kenny, 2001, 2004). Methods of intake, screening and assessment may be refined, and
personnel can become more skilled (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996; Finkelhor, 2005).
Evidence of the sources of referral of substantiated cases undermines Melton’s thesis.
Enhancing voluntary help-seeking by parents in communities that provide family support would be
welcome, as would more widely delivered primary prevention programs. Yet, there is insufficient
evidence in experience or science to justify leaving child protection to voluntary help-seeking by
parents alone; even more so where the abuser is committing criminal acts or is affected by drugs
(Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996). Our communities simply do not have the features Melton urges, and
until they do it will be premature to jettison mandated reporting as a strategy of case identification.
To forgo the proven outcomes of mandated reporting would sacrifice the disclosure of many and
probably most cases. Melton (2005) admits that a possible consequence of abandoning mandated
reporting would be the knowing acceptance of severe maltreatment of some children who would
have come to the attention of authorities. This would be an unacceptable price to pay for an
unproven alternative strategy, and the incidence of this consequence might be greater than expected.
Efforts to increase voluntary assistance seeking and community care can coexist with ongoing
enhancement of mandated reporting. Indeed, a society having sound mandated reporting is
compatible with, and arguably should be part of, the community Melton envisions. Are mandated
reporters not “adults [who] watch out for children” and who, if the system was to respond
effectively, play a vital role in enabling the provision of “easily available and non-stigmatizing help
to their families”; and is a system of mandated reporting not an element of a method of “Help—and
if necessary, monitoring and control—[which] ought to be built into primary community settings …
that improves the everyday quality of life for children and families” (Melton, 2005, pp. 15-16)?
The most significant problems are not with mandated reporting, but with responses
Mandated reporting produces more referrals, a proportion of which are not substantiated, which
requires resources to screen, assess and investigate, and this may distract overburdened personnel
from known cases. However, this is not an argument against mandated reporting, but against
insufficient resourcing, and, perhaps, ineffective reporter training and practice, less than optimum
screening, and vague reporting laws. Drake and Jonson-Reid (2007) have argued strongly against
Melton’s claims about the adverse consequences of mandated reporting (2005, p. 14), but even to
the extent those claims are valid, they do not strike at its core aim of case disclosure. Rather, the
claims strike at undesirable features of response methods after referrals, which are not flaws in
mandated reporting, but challenges in administration of child protection systems post-referral.
There are problems of inadequate resources (Finkelhor, 2005), and still developing methods of
screening (Besharov, 2005) and assessment. However, the major policy-based problem may be that
CPS departments appear to be seen by critics, professionals and citizens alike (Melton, 2005) as a
coercive, punitive investigation process which does not guarantee services, rather than one offering
sensitive assessment and helpful services. There is weighty evidence against this claim (e.g., Drake
& Jonson-Reid, 2007; Finkelhor, 2005; Fryer, Bross, Krugman, Benson, & Baird, 1990), but, even
to the extent that it is true, it is incorrect to blame mandated reporting for these faults. The claim
that “mandated reporting has transformed public child welfare agencies into investigative bodies
with diminished involvement in the provision of social services” (Melton, 2005, p. 14), incorrectly
identifies the cause. Mandated reporting is separate from the responses of child protective agencies.
The task of these agencies is to develop sound policy and culture and to respond appropriately after
both referral and substantiation. If CPS is perceived as hostile, this is a challenge of public
administration requiring improvement of assessment methods and service delivery, and the building
of community confidence in the system.
Similarly, inadequate service provision (Melton, 2005; Administration on Children and
Families, 2003) must be remedied. Data indicates that many substantiated cases receive no services
(US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006, p. 82). Again, to the extent that this is
inadequate—Drake and Jonson-Reid (2007) point out that many cases do not require services—this
problem flows from inadequate resourcing and unsound policy and practice post-report, not from
mandated reporting. As well, Drake and Jonson-Reid (2007) point out that in the USA, more
services flow to unsubstantiated than substantiated cases. Melton (2005) observed that some States
focus more on assessment than investigation, at least in cases unlikely to involve court orders. This
approach may be preferable to one prioritizing investigation only, but it still needs case
identification, which experience suggests is best achieved by mandated reporting.
Characterizing all involuntary social services as “punitive” is inaccurate. Numerous studies
suggest clients do not generally feel dissatisfied (Drake & Jonson-Reid, 2007). Limited studies
suggest only a small number of cases in jurisdictions with mandatory reporting result in criminal
prosecution (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1992). Compared to those who accept voluntary plans, children
and their families who participate in court-ordered treatment may be more likely to complete
treatment with signs of success and might be more likely to remain intact as families (Wolfe,
Aragona, Kaufman, & Sandler, 1980; Irueste-Montes & Montes, 1988; MacMahon, 1997).
Abandoning mandated reporting would force a choice of one branch of a false dichotomy of
voluntary services opposed to those which would result from mandated reporting. Public health and
mental health recognize the whole ecology of their social situations and incorporate voluntary and
involuntary approaches to prevention and intervention. A full array of such measures is also the best
commitment to abuse and neglect.
Mandated reporting enables economic and social benefits far outweighing disadvantages
Abuse and neglect causes sufficient economic and social cost to justify, if not demand,
government responses. Without proof that a voluntary approach alone will reduce these costs, a type
of mandated reporting appears necessary. Consider the health consequences. Extreme cases result in
death: in the USA in 2004 there were an estimated 1490 fatalities (US Department of Health and
Human Services, 2006). The costs of nonfatal abuse and neglect to health and life chances are well-
established, and can extend over the lifespan (e.g., Spataro, Mullen, Burgess, Wells, & Moss, 2004;
Briere & Elliott, 2003; Nelson et al., 2002; Perry, 2002; Hildyard & Wolfe, 2002; Horwitz, Widom,
McLaughlin, & White, 2001; MacMillan et al., 2001; Fergusson & Mullen, 1996; Boney-McCoy &
Finkelhor, 1995). Recent annual data in three nations of substantiated cases show large numbers of
children are affected: 872,000 in the USA (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006, p.
39); 85,237 in Canada (Trocmé et al., 2005, p. 35); and 34,046 in Australia (Australian Institute of
Health and Welfare, 2006, p. 55).
Calculating precise economic costs is not possible, and there is not yet a reliable body of
evidence about the costs, or the cost-effectiveness of prevention and intervention programs. Yet,
studies do indicate substantial economic costs (e.g., Caldwell, 1992; US Department of Health and
Human Services, 2001), and suggest ongoing efforts to improve prevention, case-finding and
intervention are fiscally imperative. Recent estimates in the USA and Australia of the annual total
cost of abuse and neglect place it at $US94 billion (Fromm, 2001) and $A4.9 billion (Kids First
Foundation, 2003); comparable estimates accounting for population difference.
Similarly, it is impossible to draw precise conclusions about the success and cost-effectiveness
of interventions. Reviews have disclosed little research into the impact of interventions (Oates &
Bross, 1995; Finkelhor & Berliner, 1995), and there is a lack of randomized trial data (Chaffin,
2004). Some studies have found underwhelming results (e.g., Duggan et al., 2004). Yet, there is
evidence of the success of service provision (De Panfilis & Zuravin, 2002; Aos, Lieb, Mayfield,
Miller, & Pennucci, 2004; Caldwell, 1992). Moreover, there is an impressive body of primary
prevention work, including randomized trials, about the positive effects of home visitation,
especially when delivered to selected population subgroups. Olds et al. (1997) showed that nurse
home visits in the first 2 years of life reduced reports of abuse and neglect by mothers over a 15
year period, especially for women who were unmarried and from low socioeconomic households.
Olds’ work has also shown enhanced early childhood health (e.g., Olds, Henderson, Kitzman, &
Cole, 1995) and positive effects on maternal life course and child academic and behavioral
outcomes (Olds et al., 2004). These outcomes do not extend to all children and mothers at risk,
unfortunately, since enrolling is voluntary (5-25% of the mothers refuse the service, and these
women are known to be at higher risk: D. Olds, personal communication to Donald Bross, March 2,
There are few economic evaluation studies of interventions comparing the economic burden of
injury to the cost of programs designed to reduce that burden (Corso & Lutzker, 2006, p. 731). So,
there are not definite answers to questions such as whether home visit programs are cost-effective
compared to other programs. Yet, Corso and Lutzker (2006) identified four such studies showing
substantial benefits. As well, there is strong evidence that investing in the early years, especially for
disadvantaged children, is economically productive (Karoly, Kilburn, & Cannon, 2005;
Schweinhart et al., 2005; Knudsen, Heckman, Cameron, & Shonkoff, 2006; Shonkoff & Phillips,
2000). The family environment is a critical predictor of early cognitive and noncognitive ability,
and gaps in these skills emerge by age 4-6 (Carneiro & Heckman, 2003). Environments that do not
develop these skills place children at a disadvantage which may never be restored. Economic return
from early intervention is very high compared with later attempts to redress imbalances resulting
from deficient family environments (Heckman, 2006).
Social justice and individual rights
A liberal society must not ignore wrongs committed by adults against children. Abolishing
mandated reporting would undermine children’s rights to safety and increase their vulnerability to
harm. A more robust method (such as mandated reporting) of disclosing these injustices is required
than relying on voluntary help-seeking and still-unformed communities of care. Several principles
from jurisprudence and political philosophy support this argument.
Melton’s theory of psychological jurisprudence assumes law should promote human welfare,
state community norms and values, and establish structures creating social behavior consistent with
those values (Melton, 1992, p. 384). People’s subjective experiences are the unit of analysis. Law
must treat people with respect and dignity, listen to their lived experience, protect aspects of
personal, family, and community life that maintain dignity, and “foster egalitarian treatment of
those in situations of disadvantage” (Melton, 1992, p. 385). To do this, lawmakers must examine
social reality and ask if legal decisions are having their intended effects, to inform policy creation.
An experiential approach to rights (Dershowitz, 2004) identifies rights through our experience
of wrongs we wish to avoid, rather than from a utopian vision. This approach seeks to persuade
others that based on experiences, “people should conclude that entrenching certain rights into
positive law will, in the long run, produce a less unjust society” (Dershowitz, 2004, pp. 115-116).
This aim is similar to that promoted by Rorty (1999, p. xxix): “What matters for pragmatists is
devising ways of diminishing human suffering and increasing human equality, increasing the ability
of all human children to start life with an equal chance of happiness.”
In 1690, John Locke held that parental power extended only to govern children for their own
“help, instruction, and preservation” (Locke, 2003, p. 176); it did not extend to life or death or the
child’s liberties. Parental guardianship was conditional on being appropriately exercised, and so
could be forfeited (pp. 126-127). In 1859, John Stuart Mill demanded the protection of children
from external injury (Mill, 1998, p. 14), and identified the family sphere as the most important
domain requiring State control to prevent abuse of power (1998, p. 116). Mill saw the link between
a distorted sense of liberty as parents, and State neglect to secure children’s safety (1998, p. 116).
A just society must include measures to address the vulnerability of children to abuse and
neglect. Notions of parental liberty should not be unduly privileged over children’s rights to
personal security. That history and custom has left adults’ treatment of children untended is no
reason to still devalue children’s liberty. An approach informed by psychological jurisprudence
would surely conclude it is more realistic to expect abused and neglected children’s experience to
come to light with mandated reporting than without it. Engaging with children’s subjective
experience might suggest that, if given a say, those who are abused would prefer to be assisted than
not. Mandated reporting better protects children’s interests of dignity and egalitarian treatment, and
enhances parents’ interests if effective responses occur. Without proven alternatives in place,
abandoning mandated reporting would ignore children’s subjective experience, and sacrifice many
children’s rights to dignity and security. Similarly, an experiential approach suggests that a child’s
right to safety is worth protecting, in the interests of individuals, families and a just society.
The principle that motivated mandated reporting originally is even more apposite today. True,
the first laws were intended for an imagined several hundred cases of physical abuse. Yet, the
purpose of those laws, then as now, was to bring cases of severe abuse to the attention of authorities
because otherwise they would have remained hidden. We now know that the number of cases is
greater, the costs are extensive, and that action taken early in life can be highly beneficial. The
question of whether a system of mandated reporting is required is related to a wider question of
whether and how to bring cases to light. The nature and efficacy of the system that responds to
reports are critical but separate challenges. Even with a good system of mandated reporting, many
children’s experience will go undetected. Without it, and without a proven alternative, many
thousands more children will be left to suffer, incurring even more health and economic costs.
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