Who should be required to report suspected child abuse to the authorities?
Almost five children per day die from child abuse in America. While it’s unclear exactly how many children are victims, it could possibly be in the millions: in 2017, there were 4.1 million child abuse or maltreatment referral reports, for 7.5 million children.
States have a patchwork of laws designating who is required to report suspected child abuse. 18 states require any adult to do so, while 47 states require anyone within certain professions to do so. These jobs can include doctors, school faculty and staff, mental health professionals, and social workers — but it varies by the state.
What the legislation does
The Speak Up to Protect Every Abused Kid Act would tie a state’s federal child abuse prevention funding to whether the state adopts a federal standard about who should report suspected child abuse.
The federal standard would include at least 10 specific categories of adults, including teachers, foster parents, camp counselors, most clergy or religious officials, daycare or childcare practitioners, school administrations, doctors, and law enforcement officials.
The lead sponsor of the legislation in each chamber comes from Pennsylvania, home of the Penn State football child abuse scandal, in which assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was found to have abused at least eight children. The legislation was first introduced in 2011, in response to the scandal.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the legislation is a necessary public safety measure that would help among the most vulnerable populations in society: abused children.
“We must do everything we can to protect children from abuse and neglect,” Sen. Casey said in a press release. “This legislation targets a loophole that would allow abusers to get away with their crimes and emphasizes the responsibility of all adults to protect children from abuse and neglect.”
“It’s past time we do more to prevent child abuse and neglect,” Rep. Wild said in the same press release. “In Pennsylvania — and across the country — we’ve seen what happens when abuse is not properly reported. This bill is an important step to stopping abusers and holding all adults responsible for alerting the authorities before it’s too late.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that such a law — while well-intentioned — would overburden the system with frivolous claims, and is not backed up by evidence that it works.
“Even now, more than four-fifths of reports don’t meet the minimal standards required for CPS workers to ‘substantiate’ them. That means caseworkers spend four-fifths of their time spinning their wheels,” Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, wrote. “More mandated reporting will leave these workers even less time to find children in real danger.”
“Eighteen states [as of the time of that writing] already require everyone to report child abuse,” Wexler continued. “There is no evidence that children in these states are safer than children in the others.”
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted six cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Education and Labor Committee.
The Senate version has not yet attracted any cosponsors. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
Sen. Casey introduced the legislation in each of the past four sessions of Congress: in 2017, 2015, 2014, and 2011. It never received a vote, whether the Senate was under either Republican or Democratic control.