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Social Development Minister Paula Bennett recently announced possible changes to child abuse laws, including mandatory reporting as a method of improving the detection of child abuse. However, how mandatory reporting might affect reports of suspected child abuse to the state child abuse agency (CYFS) is a matter of some contention.
Usually only applied to professionals, mandatory reporting is used in the United States and some Australian states, but not the United Kingdom. Comparing outcomes for these countries provides some useful insights into the essential question: how does mandatory reporting affect both the type and number of child abuse reports?
Comparing what happens in these Western capitalist democracies suggests mandatory reporting makes little difference to the general pattern of reports. It seems that having a state system as the key mechanism for processing child protection concerns, combined with strong policies that encourage reporting, is more influential than whether reporting is mandatory.
Further, all these countries have similar patterns of over, not under, reporting of concerns about abuse. This is certainly the case here, where only a third of the 157,000 reports to CYFS last year resulted in actual investigation, and then only 22,000 cases (14% of the original reports) were actually substantiated as "abuse".
Overinflation of reports has a knock-on effect: a system that spends significant time and resources filtering out the less serious cases. In the US this situation has become so extreme that campaigns are run to educate reporters to be more selective about the types of cases they report.
So, while broad comparisons suggest mandatory reporting makes little difference to the number of reports, more nuanced research examines the type of reports. After all, if mandatory reporting makes no difference to overinflated reports, but the type of cases reported were those at the serious end of the spectrum, that would be worth it, right?
On the contrary, mandatory reporting makes the overinflation of reports with less serious cases even worse, as it tends to encourage professionals to report more of the "borderline" cases in addition to the more serious ones they already report anyway.
All professionals likely to come into contact with families already have strong guidelines and codes of conduct, both from their employers and their professional associations, compelling them to report suspected abuse. Thus, mandatory reporting is likely to have no effect at all, or to effectively lower the threshold even further for reporting cases.
On the other side of the fence, for those parents struggling to adequately parent, mandatory reporting may stop them seeking support. If they know that even a vague suspicion of abuse means the agency is legally compelled to report them, disengagement from valuable preventive support services or even education is a potential negative unintended consequence.
Even this brief overview suggests mandatory reporting is a small fish in the big sea of child abuse and what to do about it.
Mandatory reporting comes together with other proposed changes that seem generally intent on forensic-style investigation, increasing legal sanctions, heightened surveillance and highly targeted intervention mechanisms.
These types of responses, while necessary for a few, are generally unsuccessful methods of dealing with the range of complex social problems contributing to child abuse.
What's worse, they focus the policy apparatus on attempts to control behaviour through fear of detection and punishment, rather than creating a type of society where children are valued and parents have the resources necessary to be able to raise them in a positive and caring manner.
Thus, the system, with or without mandatory reporting, is liable to get stuck trying to deal with the effects of a phenomenon whose causes are beyond its reach.
Where a centralised child protection system is the only mechanism by which child abuse is dealt with in a society, universal, preventive interventions remain invisible and, more importantly, underfunded.
Many NGOs do wonderful work in this area but are substantially underfunded for the task, while money flows into a bureaucratic processing system groaning under the weight of its ever-increasing burden of reports.
What's more, without a broader focus on needs and social supports, families tend to disengage as soon as possible from services. They feel stigmatised and surveilled, and opportunities to actually improve their lives are diminished. Many end up being reported again in the future.
More useful policy responses have quite a different orientation because they are predicated on the question "what type of system creates a landscape most conducive to children reaching positive health, education, welfare and social outcomes?" rather than "how can we detect and punish child abuse more effectively?"
The difference between these two basic questions, often referred to as a child welfare orientation versus a child protection orientation, creates a different set of policy responses.
Child welfare orientations view child protection as part of a larger system of economic and social policy, rather than simply the detection and management of child abuse.
Child welfare approaches are more likely to view as legitimate the aim to reduce persistent social inequalities and social marginalisation. These types of responses are likely to have a far greater impact on reducing child abuse than mandatory reporting or any other punitive or highly targeted service.
Realising this should lead us to question more closely the assumptions underpinning the proposal of mandatory reporting and many other changes under way in the child protection and welfare sectors.
- Emily Keddell is a lecturer in the department of sociology, gender and social work at the University of Otago.