Moving Away from Mandated Reporting of Child Abuse: Q&A With Catherine LaBrenz
By Alix Mammina
Each year, CPS receives millions of referrals alleging child maltreatment—but the vast majority are found to be non-victims. These numbers often reflect the disparities found throughout the child welfare system, with low-income families of color disproportionately referred to CPS.
Most CPS referrals come from professionals, due to what some call overbroad mandated reporting laws across the country. We sat down with Dr. Catherine LaBrenz, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington whose research focuses on child welfare, to learn more about mandated reporting laws and their effects on marginalized communities.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you tell me a bit about how mandated reporting laws work?
Mandated reporting laws basically establish who is legally required to report suspected maltreatment to authorities, which usually is to CPS directly. That looks different from state to state—some states have universal mandated reporting, like Texas, which means that every adult is legally required to report suspected child maltreatment. Other states just require certain professions. In just about every state in the United States, professions like teachers or coaches or healthcare workers are going to be required to report suspected maltreatment, whereas other states include all of the adult population.
Does mandated reporting help make children safer?
My short answer is no, mandated reporting does not make children safer. Looking at some of the data that are available, almost half of referrals to child welfare each year—depending on the year, between about 4.2 and 4.4 million referrals across the U.S.—are screened out. So we know that there is a lot of information that’s coming in that isn’t enough to actually substantiate screening into an investigation or to be able to even complete an investigation.
At the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when there were shelter-in-place orders in the vast majority of counties and states across the United States, there was this panic in the media about who’s going to be looking out for kids and who’s going to be making these reports if schools are closed and if healthcare centers are only seeing emergencies and are delaying normal healthy checkups. But preliminary research on child maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic found that referrals within the first several months of the pandemic went down but substantiations didn’t.
To me, the story that that tells is that some of this over-surveillance or this teaching a lot of mandated reporting trainings have where you need to report any suspicion you have, a lot of those I think are what’s getting screened out because they aren’t really based in facts or in evidence. During the pandemic a lot of those [referrals] that maybe were due to personal bias or implicit bias, those didn’t come in. And what did come in still were the ones that actually had substantiated maltreatment occurring.
What proportion of CPS referrals are for neglect versus for abuse?
I don’t have the statistics in front of me for the referrals themselves, but if we look at substantiations and we look at foster care entries, about 75 to 80 percent of those are going to be for neglect and then 20 to 25 will have some sort of abuse in addition to neglect.
Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between poverty and neglect?
A lot of the ways that we measure neglect in the United States actually reflects structural inequality in poverty. When we think about neglect, we think about some of the different types of neglects: physical neglect, neglectful supervision, medical neglect. And oftentimes when we’re talking about neglect we’re talking about an omission by a parent or caregiver that can harm a child.
A lot of the time what this really is reflecting is a lack of access to basic resources or basic needs. For example, we might call something physical neglect because a parent or caregiver isn’t able to provide adequate nutrition or shelter to their child. That actually might be due to limitations in their ability to access TANF, or in food deserts to be able to access nutritional food for their child.
With neglectful supervision, depending on the state there’s different laws in place about how old a child can be before they’re allowed to be alone unsupervised. We see that parents that may not work a traditional 9 to 5 job, maybe if they do shift work or work nights, traditional school hours don’t cover that and daycare costs are astronomical. And so what one family may see is a need of leaving a child who’s maybe 7 or 8 years old home alone for a period of time so they can work could be deemed by others neglectable supervision.
If a parent or caregiver fails to seek proper or adequate medical attention for a child, that can be deemed medical neglect. But we know how expensive healthcare is in the United States, and so we have to consider what structural barriers there are that may actually be the root cause of that. It’s not the parent purposefully seeking or not seeking medical care. It might be that they’re underinsured or uninsured. Often with neglect, we have to understand the root causes of it and what’s causing these omissions, and whether it’s a parental decision or whether there’s more underneath it.
How do mandated reporting laws impact families living at the margin, whether that’s class or race or any other form of marginalization?
I think what the story from preliminary data from the pandemic tells is just how impacted marginalized families are by mandated reporting laws. We can look at some of the big four professions that refer the majority of families to child welfare, which is law enforcement, school personnel, social services, and healthcare, and we can see that there’s often this idea of “see something, say something.” There’s this very paternalistic view of how you as the professional are going to single-handedly save this child and guarantee their safety. What we see with that narrative is that it leads to a lot of bias that starts in disproportionality and disparities in referrals.
There’s a study I recently conducted that looked at racial disparity indexes, so the proportion of children of different racial and ethnic groups at each decision-making point in a CPS investigation—initial referral, substantiation, and foster care entry—compared to their white peers. What we see is that in states with universal mandated reporting there are higher disparity indexes, particularly for Black children, at every single stage. This is likely due to a plethora of reasons. We know that families at the margins tend to be over-surveilled. Families that are low income are more likely to have involvement with social services, they’re more likely to send their children to public schools, they are more likely to have a doctor question injuries than families that come from more money. These are things that lead to this initial bias and over-representation at all stages of a child welfare case.
And when we go back to that “see something, say something” philosophy, for a lot of professionals our norms and the way we were raised may be very different from other families’ experiences. It may not actually be maltreatment, it may be a different norm, it may be a different value. So we’re putting our own lenses on instead of trying to objectively determine what’s going on and instead of trying to determine, maybe this is a structural issue, maybe instead of referring a child for neglect what they really need is a connection to a food pantry or maybe they need a connection so that they can get winter coats, maybe that would be more helpful for this family.
There can be implicit biases, there can be institutional biases, and there can be structural biases as well that are going to lead to over-representation of families at the margins, whether it’s by socioeconomic status or whether it’s by race and ethnicity—any family with an identity that’s historically been excluded from social services and from provisions.
What are some of the potential ways folks are proposing to reform mandated reporting?
There’s a lot of talk right now about shifting from this focus of mandated reporting to mandated supporting. With these mandated reporting laws we’re telling professionals, “If you feel something’s off you need to report it.” We aren’t really teaching them to think critically or to reflect on their own biases or their own worldviews and how that may taint their perceptions of what’s going on with a child that they’re serving. If instead we shift to this focus of mandated supporting, the questions then become much more strengths-based and much more family-centered.
Let’s say you’re working at a school and you have a child that consistently is showing up hungry without having food. Instead of saying, I think there’s physical neglect because the parent isn’t sending snacks with their child or the child never has breakfast before they come to school, it’s asking the question, “What barriers are there that are preventing this child from having a daily breakfast?”, and then identifying those barriers and presenting some sort of solution. Maybe that means having a chat with a child, having a chat with a caregiver and identifying a food pantry they can connect to, or connecting them with a school counselor who could help them apply for TANF or WIC.
Similarly, if you notice a child in your apartment building who’s alone for long periods of time, maybe having a conversation with the parents before calling the CPS hotline and saying is there something I can support with, is there some way I could come over and help out or is there another person in the building that your child goes to school with who they might be able to spend some time with. And so it’s taking on that, “How do we support this family?”, instead of feeling the need to report as if you need to remove that child from the situation or you’re the only one that can guarantee their safety. It’s essentially putting the power back with the family so that they can recognize what supports might be helpful.
To your knowledge, has there been any research so far to support that kind of reformed mandated reporting?
When we connect families early on with […] services that wrap-around to meet basic needs, we see that the likelihood of child maltreatment decreases. It really is to me going upstream and trying to support families before that initial referral ever comes in. Before we have this report that starts this punitive surveillance process, being able to connect [families] with community supports. There is research that shows that community supports, community-based prevention, and early intervention services do make a difference.
It looks like you’ve worked in child welfare research or direct service in other countries. Could you talk about what reporting looks like outside of the United States?
My main experience was working as a child welfare practitioner in Chile. With the Chilean child welfare system, there’s a lot of similarities to the United States in terms of the legal requirements to remove a child and the processes once a child’s in alternative care. But there are some differences in mandated reporting. A big one is instead of a statewide CPS, each region and each community within the region will have an office for the protection of child rights. And so there’s not universal mandated reporting. We do see a lot of referrals coming in from the same entities that we see in the United States, and so we see a lot of referrals come in from healthcare settings, a lot of referrals coming in from social services, a lot of referrals coming in from education, and some referrals coming in from law enforcement as well. But there isn’t necessarily this fear of penalization or losing a license if you don’t report something. And so what happens is […] the referral rates for the population and per capita are quite a bit lower there than they are in the United States.
The other country that I’ve done research in is Sweden. Sweden is interesting in the sense that it’s a very different child protection system than Chile and the United States. Both Chile and the United States tend to be child protection-focused and child safety-focused. Sweden’s system tends to be a lot more family support-focused.
What we see in the United States and in Chile is if a family does have risk factors and they are “voluntold” to participate in a program, there is often going to be a stigma because they were identified specifically because of risk factors. They may feel coerced to participate, they may feel that they’ll have continued contact with CPS if they don’t complete whatever services they’ve been referred to. Whereas in Sweden, every single family is referred [to services] and provided opportunities to have things like home visiting. And so because every single family is referred and it doesn’t have this punitive lens, a lot more people partake in it. For families that have newborns, there’s universal home visiting services that provide any family that might be struggling with adapting to having a new child in their family with a non-punitive, more support-focused way to get help and get their needs addressed. If they have questions, they can openly ask those questions without fear of having their parenting questioned or having their child removed.
For me, that is one of the better systems and ways that we could go towards. But that also requires having funding for those types of services, and that requires having basic rights like healthcare and mental healthcare access recognized and actually being accessible to all families, which unfortunately I think is a ways away in the United States. But I think that that’s the direction to head in, where we really are offering all families services and access to things that we know in the long run are going to address those root causes of child maltreatment.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
When you talk about mandated reporting, to me it goes hand-in-hand with child maltreatment. One thing that I think is missing in the United States is in our definitions of child maltreatment. if you look at CAPTA, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, it stipulates that [abuse] has to be perpetrated by a caregiver or parent.
Going back to your question about the overlap between neglect and poverty, I think we need to recognize that families that tend to get reported to CPS tend to have similar [lower] socioeconomic statuses. We know that there are differences by race and ethnicity [in referrals]. Looking at marginalized or historically excluded identities, I think it’s really important to expand the definitions of maltreatment to recognize structural maltreatment, like systematically denying families access to things like healthcare, systematically denying families access to things like food.
The whole issue of school lunches making it so that children who can’t pay unless their family fills out the application and is able to get everything in order, they go hungry—that for me is a structural type of maltreatment. It’s neglect, it’s not meeting a child’s basic physical needs. It’s not under the control of the parent or caregiver, it’s more at the state level or the policy level. When we start to look at how to address maltreatment, it’s important to take it to the macro level and find ways to advocate for more equitable policies.