Made by History

Why Mandatory Reporting Doesn’t Keep Children Safe

8 minute read

Fifty years ago today, President Richard Nixon signed the bipartisan Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). Designed to address rising concerns over children being hurt in their homes, CAPTA’s primary impact was setting federal standards for what would become the primary policy approach to addressing child abuse: mandatory reporting.

But CAPTAs legacy is neither prevention nor treatment of child abuse. That’s because it does not address the root factors that make children less safe and fails to adequately provide the resources children need to thrive. Instead, it focuses primarily on reporting child abuse. Consequently, the act encourages states to spend considerably more on surveillance, investigation, prosecution, and family separation than on the provision of community- and family-strengthening resources.

At the time of its passage in 1974, there was little data about what might prevent child abuse. Officials focused on what happened when adults who might have stepped in to protect children, including doctors, nurses, and teachers, failed to do so. Early intervention, they thought, could help. By the mid to late 1960s, all states had passed laws identifying certain professionals required to report suspected harm to children. These state mandatory reporting laws were passed hurriedly, and without evidence that they were effective.

Senator Walter Mondale, Minnesota Democrat and longtime champion of children and families, was the main sponsor of CAPTA. Mondale, still smarting from the 1971 Nixon veto of his bipartisan universal early childhood education bill, was keen to create a bill that Nixon could support. As Mondale quipped, “Not even Richard Nixon is in favor of child abuse!”

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To help steer a bill that could garner broad support, Mondale avoided discussions of poverty, racism, and other social risk factors for child abuse, even as these had already been mapped out in detail by the early 1970s. Large-scale studies showed that joblessness, homelessness, and even a lack of telephone in the home were risk factors for harm to children. But Mondale discouraged witnesses who raised these issues. When child abuse researcher David Gil noted the higher incidence of child abuse in poor families, for instance, Mondale steered his questions elsewhere and noted that this was “not a poverty problem, this is a national problem.” In the early 1970s, a backlash against anti-poverty programs, as well as a sense that the public had soured on civil rights initiatives, informed Mondale’s approach.

Mondale succeeded in garnering support for CAPTA, and Nixon signed it into law. But it was a pyrrhic victory, coming at the price of obscuring the risk factors known to make children less safe and squandering an opportunity to argue for more supports for struggling families.

CAPTA’s main legacy was setting a federal standard for mandatory reporting, which states had to meet to be eligible for grants. States then revised their statutes, rather than leave money on the table.

But reporting and the investigations they helped fuel didn’t address the core problems. As early as 1973, a child welfare agency in New York made the fairly obvious observation that investigations in themselves are not useful unless they lead to more services.

Additionally, many researchers raised concern over the harms of oversurveillance and the singular focus on reporting promoted by CAPTA. In 1975, the authors of a federally funded study of reporting laws sounded the alarm, mapping the transformations they themselves had undergone as they studied the topic.

Initially the authors had believed that the best approach was to require broad reporting. However, as they evaluated the large-scale data they had collected, they realized that the act was “creating a system of reporting, sanctioned and encouraged by the law, which could invade and harm the lives of parents and children as easily as help them.” Furthermore, the authors worried that the overemphasis on reporting distracted from the societal problems that made children less safe—usually related to poverty, lack of child care, lack of access to health care, and lack of housing.

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The authors’ research led them to reach politically unpopular and unexpected conclusions. As a result, their work was largely ignored. Thus, one of the most comprehensive reviews of data about mandated reporting was effectively discarded and an opportunity to rethink our approach was lost. Instead, an evidence-free approach prevailed.

Policymakers doubled down on the reporting approach, adding a punitive element, also not supported by evidence. In 1975, the Education Commission of the States, an education policy think-tank, worked to revise their earlier model statutes based on CAPTA requirements. A vigorous debate erupted over whether model legislation should include penalties for failure to report. Head Start architect and longtime government administrator Jule Sugerman recommended against penalties for failure to report. Penalties, Sugerman worried, might lead to unnecessary reports and could ultimately deter families from seeking the care they needed. Others raised similar objections.

Yet the task force decided to recommend significant penalties for non-reporting, explaining that there was “no substantial evidence to support the argument against the penalties.” There was, of course, no evidence to support these policies either. And yet states adopted this approach and have kept these penalties on the books, despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness.

Over the years, the evidence has mounted against reporting requirements as the primary mechanism for addressing child abuse. Policies that expand reporting are not associated with more accurate detection of children at risk of harm, and states in which all adults are legally required to report are no better at detecting child abuse than those in which the mandate is narrower.

Reporting requirements are also quite broad, undermining their effectiveness. Most reports deal with manifestations of poverty and substance use, and a small sliver of cases are substantiated physical and sexual abuse. Families may be reported to authorities if they are late for daycare pick up, if a child is playing unsupervised or waiting in the car unattended, or if a family misses repeated medical appointments for a lack of transportation.

Concerned adults often file reports because they want children to get access to services, or mistakenly believe that a report will result in a solution to an immediate crisis. But the majority of investigations end without resulting in the provision of new services to families. In fact, in many states reports of child abuse and maltreatment increased at precisely same time that these states were decreasing funding for state and local services. Families often derived no material benefit from a report about hunger or homelessness, for example. In the words of the 1990 report of the United State Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, it was “far easier to pick up one’s phone to report one’s neighbor” than it was to pick up the phone and reach out to offer and provide help.

Advocates have spoken in detail of the harm their families have experienced from needless investigations and coercive interventions. A wealth of evidence shows that mandatory reporting laws disproportionately target poor families and families of color, and often make children less safe—by removing children and placing them in unsafe situations, or by discouraging parents from seeking care or partaking in programs that could offer valuable supports.

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CAPTA’s requirements to make “plans of safe care” for children of mothers who use substances has contributed to discriminatory drug-testing policies, investigations, and removal of newborn babies from their mothers because of drug panics and criminalization. But drug tests are not parenting tests, and family separation is not family support.

Certainly, in any case of abuse an observer can and should report if they are concerned about a child’s safety. That is distinct from federal policies that require reporting of a broad array of situations, many of which are not child abuse, and could be better addressed with provision of supports and resources—something supported by the evidence.

It’s time for a paradigm shift. On its 50th birthday, we should reevaluate the reporting-focused priorities set into place by CAPTA, and work to prevent and treat child abuse through evidence-based policies that support families.

Mical Raz is a practicing physician and a historian of health policy at the University of Rochester. She is the author of Abusive Policies: How the American Child Welfare System Lost Its Way.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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