The failures of mandated reporting

In October of last year, ProPublica and NBC News investigated whether mandated reporter laws work. Their conclusion: in some states, mandated reporter laws have not led to increased safety for children. In fact, they allege that in Pennsylvania, when additional people were mandated to report child abuse, this increased increased false reporting, which in turn overwhelmed already strained child protective services.

I can tell you from my own experience that badly written laws can cause an increase in mandated reports that are not worth pursuing. In 2014, California updated its mandated reporting law, adding many specifics to a list of reportable offenses. One specific that was added: in an effort to reduce children being forced to perform oral sex on an abuser, mandated reporters were required to report if a foreign object were inserted into a child’s mouth. However, this meant that if two teenagers under age 18 were seen French kissing, they had to be reported. I knew a woman who worked with at-risk youth, and she was making weekly calls to Child Protective services to report that two of the teens in her program had been French kissing. Even though the people who fielded the calls would simply file her reports, it still used up their valuable time. For my own part, after 2014 I had to tell teens in my congregation’s youth programs that they could never let me see them kissing, because I would have to report them to the state.

More insidious is the problem that because of vague laws, mandated reporters often don’t know exactly what to report. I’m one of those mandated reporters. I’ve taken trainings and read online materials. But too often there are no clearly defined criteria. None of the trainings ever tells you — If you see this then you must report. The training materials always say — If you think you’ve seen signs of abuse that kind of look like this, then you must report. This is why I like the last five videos on Virtual Lab School’s “Child Abuse Prevention, Identification, and Reporting” webpage — the teachers who talk on the videos on that page make it clear that they are not always sure what constitutes abuse. Yet they still have to report. They work hard to document a pattern of behavior, and they share that documentation with state workers. But sometimes they worry that the pattern of behaviors they observed might be, for example, the result of poverty instead of neglect — e.g., not having a hot meal once a day might be neglect, or it could be the family doesn’t have the money to give anyone a hot meal. And the ProPublica / NBC News report also makes it clear that African American children are overrepresented in reports from mandated reporters. Without well-defined criteria on what constitutes abuse, of course we’re going to see systemic prejudices coming into play.

Furthermore, I don’t advocate making everyone a mandated report, which some U.S. states have done. In my view, mandated reporters should be professionals who already have significant training in some kind of human services (health care, education, social work, emergency response, ministry, etc.). In addition, as a part of their job mandated reporters should receive regular training on abuse recognition and reporting, as part of their paid duties. I would also say that any professional working in a setting where it is possible to abuse children (including schools, churches, health care settings, etc.) needs to be able to safely report abuse that is perpetrated by other professionals, especially when that other professional is your supervisor or some other senior colleague.

So it’s clear to me that mandated reporting laws need reform. Legislators have think through the real-world effects of mandated reporting laws, and revise laws that are not producing the intended effects. Legislators also have to bite the bullet and pony up the money to create really good training on abuse recognition. A mandated reporting law that requires people to report abuse, but then doesn’t adequately tell people what abuse must be reported, is an empty law. Legislators need to be held accountable when they have not done their job.

Yet even with all the problems in existing mandated reporting laws, I still think clergy should be mandated reporters. Congregations of all types remain major targets for sexual predators (one insurance company representative told me that his nationwide company receives on average one new claim per week from religious congregations where child sexual abuse happened). If clergy are legally mandated reporters, this sends a message to sexual predators that congregations are at least doing an absolute bare minimum to watch for child sexual abuse.

Clergy as mandated reporters

In the state of New York, clergy are still not mandated reporters. That is, clergy are not mandated by law to report the physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of minors, if they become aware of such abuse. A bill currently being considered by the New York state legislature would change that state of affairs, making clergy mandated reporters. I don’t want to tell New Yorkers what to do. It’s their state, they need to figure it out themselves.

But I feel I’m lucky I’m in Massachusetts. In this state, as a clergyperson I am a mandated reporter. As a mandated reporter, I cannot be pressured by my congregation or by my denomination to suppress evidence of child abuse. As a mandated reporter, the law places great responsibility on me but it also exempts me from liability if I report in good faith but the state later finds no evidence of abuse. And because of the added responsibility of being a mandated reporter, I feel compelled to educate myself about child abuse and neglect.

Being a mandated reporter is a serious responsibility. Now that I’m back in Massachusetts, I’m using this state’s material to learn my responsibilities all over again. I read the Mass. Department of Children and Families webpage on “Warning Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect.” I also read “Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting: A Guide for Mandated Reporters.” Next, I will complete the 51A Online Mandated Reporter Training offered by Middlesex Children’s Advocacy Center. I’m taking my responsibility seriously.

Regarding the responsibility involved in being a mandated reporter, I found several of the videos on the Virtual Lab School’s “Child Abuse Prevention, Identification, and Reporting” webpage to be very helpful. There are five videos of preschool teachers talking about how they dealt with making reports as a mandated reporter, and recognizing signs of problems. These videos do not have happy storybook endings; the videos make it clear that when you make a report, it is not going to be easy, there may be real-world consequences, and sometimes you will never know what happened because of your report.

I’ve never had to report abuse myself. Once I was talking with another minister about a difficult situation we both knew about from doing denominational youth ministry together. This other minister said something about the situation, to which I replied: “You realize that as a mandated reporter you have to report that.” The other minister immediately ended the call with me and immediately called the state. That’s as close as I’ve come to making a report.

As I said, I don’t want to tell New Yorkers what to do about their laws. But honestly, I’m glad I’m in Massachusetts where clergy are mandated reporters. It makes things clear-cut for me. I know what my responsibilities are, I know what training I need to seek out, and so does my congregation and my denomination.

Additional resource: When I was in California, I came across the services of MinistrySafe, a law firm that specializes in child abuse prevention for congregations. One of the services they offer is abuse recognition training, at $10 per person. This is worth mentioning because their abuse training helps California congregations comply with the new law AB506.