Policy and Practice — February 2012
Reporting Child Abuse And Neglect: Who Is Responsible?
Rashida Brown

The child abuse allegations on the campus of Pennsylvania State University that hit national news in November shook the public tremendously. It raised the eyebrows of concerned citizens wondering who’s most at fault and what can be done to make sure this situation never happens again. Individuals eager to point the finger at those involved have had to stop and think about what new policies should be in place to ensure better protection for all children, not just those who become victims of sexual abuse by prominent and well-known individuals of high stature. In looking at the events of the Penn State scandal from a more comprehensive lens and the reactions of many Americans, it was clear that the general public has had to ponder how they would have handled the situation if they were witnesses of the abuse. They’ve had to ask themselves who they would have called to report the crime — would it be law enforcement, university officials, or child protection services? Some have said that law enforcement should have done a better job at intervening. Others have said that institutions of higher learning should have clearer standards in place for professionals working with children or young adults. The rest have asked what position child welfare took in the matter.

Nonetheless, it raised the need to have more public awareness in the broader community for adults to be more informed on how to identify suspected abuse and neglect of children and how best to respond. Skeptics have questioned whether Congress can fix the problem through legislation and if enforcing more rigid standards on states would eliminate acts of abuse altogether.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires that all states have laws on child abuse and neglect and policies and procedures in place for mandated reporters. After similar allegations on other campuses surfaced and in response to the media uproar, some state legislatures have amended state laws on mandated reporters to clarify “school professionals” by including “professionals working in institutions of higher learning” in their definition. Eighteen states, including Pennsylvania, have adopted laws that extend the definition of mandated reporter beyond the typical child-serving professionals — medical professionals, clergy, teachers, social workers, child care providers — by requiring all adults to be responsible for reporting suspected abuse and neglect. Though agencies, organizations, and institutions have the power to enforce background checks on workers, institute licensing standards on facilities, develop training modules on reporting child abuse and neglect, and provide support for professionals, one would have to ask — how can all adults receive the proper guidance on the topic if legislation requires them to be mandated reporters of abuse and neglect? And who would be penalized should these adults fail to act?

Last fall, various members of Congress who are known as champions of children’s issues introduced bills to address gaps in the system and pose federal mandates on states to improve the safety and protection of children vulnerable to sexual predators. On November 17, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced the State Children’s Protection Act (S. 1887). This measure would require all states to enact legislation and implement policies mandating any person who knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, or has observed any child being subjected to child abuse or neglect to immediately report the crime to child protective services or a local law enforcement agency. In addition, the law must specify that persons, institutions, or agencies required to report abuse and neglect that act on good faith would be immune from civil or criminal penalty. Mandated reporters who act in bad faith would suffer criminal or civil action. States that do not meet this requirement within a year will face a penalty and be required to forfeit the ability to reserve up to 10 percent of their federal grants used for crime control activities. Sen. Boxer introduced a similar bill, “Federal Children’s Protection Act,” (S. 1889), which would require all persons to report child abuse and neglect while on federal land or in a federally operated facility. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the “Child Abuse Reporting Enforcement Act” or CARE (S. 1879), which includes heavier provisions for states, requiring them to enact laws that enforce criminal status on individuals who fail to report suspected child abuse or neglect. The legislation would require states to enact laws that create a felony offense with a minimum penalty of one-year imprisonment for any person failing to report suspected abuse or neglect of a child. States that do not meet this requirement would lose a portion of their Social Services Block Grant allotments.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced two bills, the “Speak Up to Protect Every Abused Kid Act” or Speak Up (S. 1877) and the “Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act” or SAVE (S. 834). Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced a companion bill for SAVE in the House. The SAVE Act would amend Title IV of the Higher Education Act to require institutions of higher learning to put policies and procedures in place on sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Building from the work of the 18 states expanding on their mandated reporter laws, the Speak Up Act would amend the CAPTA and require that all states enact laws mandating that all adults to report suspected abuse and neglect. Moreover, it would provide additional funding to states for three years to launch educational campaigns and implement training programs to inform individuals about what constitutes child abuse and neglect and promote greater responsibility. Sen. Casey’s bill includes other assurances under the CAPTA Tile I State Grants to expand federal law on mandated reporting. However, Sen. Casey’s proposal does not include increased federal funding to support the extra assurances.

Although these bills were drafted with good intent, state officials argue that such proposals could have a negative impact on vulnerable children and families currently being served by the system. Without adequate support from its federal partners, state officials are concerned about potentially overextending child welfare and law enforcement’s capacity to assist local citizens in need of intervention and ensure public safety. On December 13, Erin Sullivan Sutton, past president of National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators and assistant commissioner of children and family services for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families at a hearing, “Breaking the Silence on Child Abuse: Protection, Prevention, Intervention and Deterrence.” The hearing examined federal child abuse laws in light of the recent sexual abuse allegations at various universities and colleges. Sullivan Sutton, along with other witnesses on the panel, voiced their concerns about the legislative proposals on the table. Panelists mentioned that enacting such laws would prompt a significant amount of false reports from bystanders and limit agencies’ ability to adequately meet the needs of children whose cases of abuse and neglect become substantiated. In her testimony, Sullivan Sutton expressed the challenges that child welfare agencies face with implementing the numerous assurances of CAPTA with limited funds. Minnesota’s CAPTA allocation for CAPTA Title I State Grant is $445,000 to carry out the CAPTA assurances, yet the state uses approximately $28 million for assessment and investigation of reports of alleged maltreatment. State child welfare administrators typically use local tax and state revenue dollars to pay for these expenditures and supplement what CAPTA does not provide. Because the total distribution of CAPTA is limited for each state, public child welfare agencies often tap into other federal funding streams such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the Social Services Block Grant, and the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Child Welfare Services Program to fund child protection and prevention services.

Throughout the years, public child welfare administrators and child advocates have asked Congress for adequate federal support to ensure better protections for children. Recommendations have varied across the board, but all agree that action from Congress is needed. But how could this happen in a tough economy — when Washington is ready to tighten its reins on funding and, at the same time, add the pressure on states to adopt more rigid policies on child protection? Some might ask — would these federal mandates help prevent children from abuse and neglect or would there be an unintentional consequence of pulling the necessary resources away from states that use those dollars to improve child protection?

Professionals who work in law enforcement and child protection might have a better idea of what improvements are needed. However, prior to developing such policies, it is important for the public and federal lawmakers to understand the complexities of the two systems, how they work together, and how they work in silos. National child advocacy organizations have urged Congress to require the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Justice to develop an integrated national database collection system where the federal agencies can house and release information on reports of abuse and neglect involving parents, caretakers, and non-familiar parties, including those that have resulted in deaths and abductions.

On December 14, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released its latest maltreatment report, “Child Maltreatment 2010,” which shows a steady decline in the number of child victims who were maltreated for the fourth consecutive year. The report shows a reduction of approximately 9,000 children in the past year who were determined to be victims of maltreatment. However, rates of abuse and neglect have been the highest among infants and toddlers. State child protection services received an estimated 3.3 million referrals of possible maltreatment and of 1,793,794 reports that received an investigation, 436,321 were substantiated. Furthermore, there were 24,976 investigations that could not be substantiated under state law or policy and 1,262,118 were found to be unsubstantiated.

In response to these dramatic statistics, ACF Acting Secretary for Children and Families George Sheldon states that ACF is “heartened to see maltreatment on the decline, but even one child being a victim of abuse and neglect is too many.” In addition, “the report reminds us of the continuing need for investment in prevention efforts and the importance of coordination between federal, state and local agencies.” Using an integrated approach to collect data and create innovations on the front end would provide states with the ability to accurately determine the needs of vulnerable children and families and deliver services more effectively. This would also eliminate duplication and inefficiencies in local, state, and federal government and potentially reduce costs. APHSA has long recommended reform for both federal and state governments that promotes the use of a wide array of resources targeted to improve child safety. Because child maltreatment has many causes, the continuum of services for child welfare should include a broad range of community-based, inter agency services that support families and promote the general well being of all children. In addition, it should focus on preventing incidences of maltreatment or other conditions that bring children to the attention of the public child welfare system. Child welfare agencies need to have the flexibility to utilize federal resources to work within their own communities. This would afford them the opportunity to identify at-risk children and families and provide them with various types of services such as early intervention, family counseling, and substance abuse assistance to prevent maltreatment. This could be achieved through child welfare finance reform and other policy reform efforts focusing on early intervention and prevention.

Such reforms would involve a holistic and cost-cutting mechanism to remove historical barriers in a government that operates in silos. It would move states in a direction that allows them to offer an effective, efficient, and outcome-based service delivery system for children and families. APHSA’s national policy position on integrated services, “Pathways: The Opportunities Ahead for Human Services,” is a blueprint for human services and outlines a framework that encourages state and local governments to use new and existing resources to modernize and transform its approach to improve the outcomes of families, be accountable for providing meaningful and sustainable results, and engage partners to bring together resources of the entire community so that public funds can be used in the most effective way possible. APHSA’s open letter on Pathways can be found on page 13 and online at www.aphsa.org/policy/pathways.asp.

While APHSA believes this would advance the health and human service field, it is important to recognize that none of this can be achieved without its federal partners. The public health and human service system is grounded in its federal and state partnership and can only be productive when this partnership is balanced with state flexibility and reasonable federal oversight. APHSA continues to work with Congress and the Administration to help strengthen this partnership, voice the perspectives of its members and offer data-driven solutions to improve the lives of children, youth, and families.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires that all states have laws on child abuse and neglect and policies and procedures in place for mandated reporters… Eighteen states, including Pennsylvania, have adopted laws that extend the definition of mandated reporter beyond the typical child serving professionals.

Without adequate support from its federal partners, state officials are concerned about potentially overextending child welfare and law enforcement’s capacity to assist local citizens in need of intervention and ensure public safety…

Some might ask — would these federal mandates help prevent children from abuse and neglect or would there be an unintentional consequence of pulling the necessary resources away from states that use those dollars to improve child protection?

The report shows a reduction of approximately 9,000 children in the past year who were determined to be victims of maltreatment. However, rates of abuse and neglect have been the highest among infants and toddlers.
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