Mandatory Reporting Was Supposed to Stop Severe Child Abuse. It Punishes Poor Families Instead.

Pro Publica [New York, NY]

October 12, 2022

By Mike Hixenbaugh and Suzy Khimm, NBC News, and Agnel Philip, ProPublica, photography by Stephanie Mei-Ling, special to ProPublica and NBC News

After the Sandusky child abuse scandal rocked Pennsylvania, the state required more professionals to report suspected child abuse. That led to a strained child welfare system and more unsubstantiated reports against low-income families.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

More than a decade before the Penn State University child sex abuse scandal broke, an assistant football coach told his supervisors that he had seen Jerry Sandusky molesting a young boy in the shower. When this was revealed during Sandusky’s criminal trial in 2012, it prompted public outcry: Why hadn’t anyone reported the abuse sooner?

In response, Pennsylvania lawmakers enacted sweeping reforms to prevent anything like it from ever happening again.

Most notably, they expanded the list of professionals required to report it when they suspect a child might be in danger, broadened the definition for what constitutes abuse and increased the criminal penalties for those who fail to report.

“Today, Pennsylvania says ‘No more’ to child abuse,” then-Gov. Tom Corbett declared as he signed the legislation into law in 2014.

A flood of unfounded reports followed, overwhelming state and local child protection agencies. The vast expansion of the child protection dragnet ensnared tens of thousands of innocent parents, disproportionately affecting families of color living in poverty. While the unintended and costly consequences are clear, there’s no proof that the reforms have prevented the most serious abuse cases, an NBC News and ProPublica investigation found.

Instead, data and child welfare experts suggest the changes may have done the opposite.

The number of Pennsylvania children found to have been abused so severely that they died or were nearly killed has gone up almost every year since — from 96 in 2014 to 194 in 2021, according to state data. State child welfare officials say more vigilance in documenting severe cases of abuse likely contributed to the increase. But child safety advocates and researchers raised concerns that the surge of unfounded reports has overburdened the system, making it harder to identify and protect children who are truly in danger.

In the five years after the reforms took effect, the state’s child abuse hotline was inundated with more than 1 million reports of child maltreatment, state data shows. More than 800,000 of these calls were related not to abuse or serious neglect, but to lower-level neglect allegations often stemming from poverty, most of which were later dismissed as invalid by caseworkers.

The number of children reported as possible victims of abuse or serious neglect increased by 72% compared to the five years prior, triggering Child Protective Services investigations into the well-being of nearly 200,000 children from 2015 to 2019, according to a ProPublica and NBC News analysis of federal Department of Health and Human Services data. From this pool of reports, child welfare workers identified 6,000 more children who might have been harmed than in the five previous years. But for the vast majority of the 200,000 alleged victims — roughly 9 in 10 — county agencies dismissed the allegations as unfounded after inspecting families’ homes and subjecting parents and children to questioning.

The expanded reporting requirements were even less effective at detecting additional cases of sexual abuse. Some 42,000 children were investigated as possible sex abuse victims from 2015 to 2019 — an increase of 42% from the five years prior — but there was no increase in the number of substantiated allegations, the analysis of federal data showed. In other words, reforms enacted in response to a major sex abuse scandal led to thousands more investigations, but no increase in the number of children identified as likely victims.

(See graph about “More Families Were Investigated for Sexual Abuse After Pennsylvania Expanded Mandatory Reporting Policies, but the Investigations Didn’t Uncover More Victims” at original article)

Child welfare experts say these findings cast doubt on the effectiveness of the primary tool that states rely on to protect children: mandatory child abuse reporting. These policies, the bedrock of America’s child welfare system, were first implemented more than half a century ago in response to growing national awareness of child maltreatment. The thinking was simple: By making it a crime for certain professionals to withhold information about suspected abuse, the government could prevent vulnerable children from falling through the cracks.

Over the past decade, at least 36 states have enacted laws to expand the list of professionals required by law to report suspicions of child abuse or imposed new reporting requirements and penalties for failing to report, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group representing state governments.

Some legal experts and child welfare reform activists argue these laws have created a vast family surveillance apparatus, turning educators, health care workers, therapists and social services providers into the eyes and ears of a system that has the power to take children from their parents.

“I don’t think we have evidence that mandated reporting makes children safer,” said Kathleen Creamer, an attorney with Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides free representation to parents accused of abuse and neglect. “I actually think we have strong evidence that it puts child safety at risk because it makes parents afraid to seek help, and because it floods hotlines with frivolous calls, making it harder for caseworkers to identify families who really do need services.”