Who Is Required To Report Suspected Child Abuse And When

November 19, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

Last month, we wrote about some gaps in the child welfare system that can lead to children in foster care being abused. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s not just those children who can fall prey to abuse. Almost any child is vulnerable, by virtue of their dependence on adults in their early life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually considers child abuse and neglect “serious public health problems that can have long-term impact on health, opportunity, and wellbeing.” On one hand, child maltreatment has a wider economic cost, resulting in a loss of $428 billion in 2015, putting it on par with the costs associated with other widespread health issues like stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Per a CDC report, at least one in seven children have likely experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, and it’s highly probably that this number is actually higher. In 2019 alone, an estimated 1,840 children died of abuse and neglect nationwide. As with most social determinants of health, children who live in poverty conditions are more likely to experience abuse and neglect. In this case, they are five times more likely to be victims of maltreatment.

Research shows that neglect is the most common form of child abuse, followed by physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. About 16% of children who were abused in 2018 were subjected to more than one type of maltreatment. The most common relationship between abuser and victim is parent–child, with more than three out of four abusers in 2018 being parents. The rates of abuse do not vary too much across gender, with the rate being 48.6% and 51% respectively for boys and girls.

In the long term, children who are abused in such a way suffer beyond just immediate physical injuries. They may also develop emotional, cognitive, and psychological problems. They are more susceptible to becoming violent, abusing drugs, contracting sexually transmitted infections, developing eating disorders, and falling prey to sexual exploitation, perpetuating the cycle of abuse. They are also more likely to perform poorer in school or drop-out altogether, and face limited employment opportunities. The stress and anxiety associated with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder can also put them at risk for other physiological issues like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease.

Given the prevalent nature of this problem, it is unsurprising that there are laws in place to ensure that as few child abuse cases fall through the cracks in the legal system as possible. In today’s piece, we look at laws that govern who must legally report suspected child abuse cases to the authorities and when.

In 1962, a team of researchers published a landmark article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which they coined a new term — “Battered-Child Syndrome,” i.e., “a clinical condition in young children who have received serious physical abuse, generally from a parent or foster parent.” This marked a turning point in society’s understanding of child abuse, with most coming to recognize it as a “regular and recurring aspect of family life, not a sensational exception.”

It has taken centuries for our language and perception of childhood to reach where it is today. As such, child abuse — both physical and sexual — has likely existed for a considerable amount of time, though historians say they were “rarely documented, because neither medical nor legal frameworks existed for identifying or discussing them.” Where once, even in America, a spanking would have been acceptable or even encouraged, today parents are urged by psychologists to find alternatives to physical punishment. Further, even today, “abuse” has different cultural connotations across the world.

In 1974, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was signed into law to address this problem. It was subsequently reauthorized in 2010, and was amended in 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019. The 2015 revision added sex and/or human trafficking to the umbrella term of “child abuse and neglect” and “sexual abuse.” 

Under the Act, to receive federal funds earmarked for child abuse mitigation, states had to mandate some professionals to report any real or suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, set up child protective agencies; and ensure confidentiality in any records or legal proceedings tied to each report; among other stipulations. CAPTA covers physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and psychological and emotional maltreatment.

In general, those who are required to report by law are those adults that have frequent contact with children and, thus, may be more likely to notice the signs of maltreatment. These commonly include social workers, staff at schools, healthcare professionals, mental health personnel, child care providers (i.e., nannies, at-home nurses, etc.), medical examiners/coroners, and law enforcement officers.

Some states expand this further to cover commercial film or photograph processors and/or computer technicians who may encounter child sexual abuse material during in their day-to-day jobs; substance abuse counselors; probation or parole officers; members of the clergy; and anyone involved in either a paid or volunteer capacity with organized activities for children like church groups, camps, youth centers, and recreation centers.

Eighteen states and Puerto Rico went even further, requiring that any civilian report suspected abuse/neglect, and granted them total criminal and civil immunity even if it was found they purposely submitted a false report. Later, the anonymized nature of hotlines further widened the ability to draw attention to suspected abuse. Indiana, New Jersey, and Wyoming require every person, regardless of profession, to report suspected abuse. 

In addition, CAPTA has a provision for “institutional reporting,” i.e., individual organizations like a school or hospital must have internal policies and procedures for mandatory reporting. There are state by state variations on whether a person who reports suspected child maltreatment can be penalized by their company for doing so, be that in the form of termination, demotion, a pay cut, negative performance evaluation, or suspensions.

Some states require the person submitting the report to provide their contact information and names, while others allow anonymous reporting. The vast majority nonetheless have clauses that maintain confidentiality in the record, and prevent the abuser from learning who made the report. The identities of the tipster can be disclosed to law enforcement and other criminal justice personnel for investigative purposes or if the report is found to be false.

The penalties for those who are required to but fail to report child maltreatment also vary from state to state. In some states, like Florida, it can be a felony. In others, it could just be a misdemeanor. In some, like Arizona and Minnesota, if it involves another serious offense like prostituting a child or incest, or if the child dies, then the misdemeanor can be upgraded to a felony. In some states like Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, and Guam, only second or subsequent violations are classified as felonies.

Penalties can range from 30 days to five years in prison and/or fines between $300 and $10,000. In seven states and American Samoa, the person who fails to report despite being legally obligated to do so can be sued in civil court, in addition to the criminal charges. Uniquely, Florida imposes a fine of up to $1 million on any institution of higher learning that fails to report or prevents any person from reporting an instance of abuse committed on the institution’s grounds or at an event sponsored by it. 

Around 10 states also have penalties for an employer who retaliates in any way against an employee or volunteer who makes a report. They can be charged with a misdemeanor, though in Connecticut that can be a felony and carries a civil fine of up to $2,500.

Conversely, there are also penalties for those who make false reports. In New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the Virgin Islands, making false reports is entirely illegal based on the state code. In 19 states and the Virgin Islands, it usually amounts to a misdemeanor, though in Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, and Texas, false reporting is a felony. Multiple false reports are upgraded to felonies in Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, and Virginia.

No criminal penalties are imposed in California, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, and Nebraska. However, those who submit a false report are not protected from civil or criminal action, as is usually the case for those who report maltreatment.

In those states that specify penalties for false reports, the consequences can range from 90 days to five years in jail, or fines between $500 and $5,000. Civil charges may also apply in some states. Again, Florida is an outlier here: in addition to a court sentence of 5 years and $5,000, the Department of Children and Family Services may fine the person who made the false report up to $10,000.

You can find a detailed, state-by-state list of penalties associated with failing to report child maltreatment or submitting a false report here.

You can find a detailed, state-by-state list of mandatory child abuse reporting requirements, as compiled by the  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau here.

The National Child Abuse Hotline can be contacted 24×7 at 1-800-422-4453.