Mandatory reporting of child abuse around the world

In a previous blog we explored the call to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse in England and Wales. It is time to look in a little more depth at this issue -- and what better place to start than with a definition?

“Mandatory reporting” is a term used to describe a legal requirement imposed on selected classes of people to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect to government authorities. It is important to note that mandatory reporting is very largely about suspicion – a suspicion, not yet proven, that the child is in peril.  This puts a substantial burden on the person who does suspect a child is being abused to figure out what the law means and whether it applies in the particular case.

A very brief history.

In 1962 the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article entitled “The Battered Child Syndrome”. The article was written by Denver pediatrician C. Henry Kempe and some colleagues. Kempe was the first in the medical community to formally recognise the issue of child abuse. When he died in 1984 he left behind an impressive legacy. With his wife Ruth and some colleagues he founded the Kempe Children’s Centre, he was the principal founder of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and its journal Child Abuse and Neglect: The International Journal. He was twice nominated for a Nobel Prize. The first nomination was for his work in developing a safer smallpox vaccine and the second was for his work in preventing child abuse.

Kempe’s most far reaching influence, however, was in the area of public policy, even if this influence was based on a complete miscalculation about the extent of child abuse. Kempe and his colleagues estimated that maltreatment of children in the USA affected only a few hundred children and on the basis of such small numbers they concluded that the best policy response would be to require health professionals to report those cases to public authorities.  Within three years of the publication of “The Battered Child Syndrome,” every one of the 50 states in the USA had adopted a mandatory reporting law, requiring medical professionals to report suspected abuse. Originally the focus was on serious physical abuse in the US but this was slowly extended to include sexual and emotional abuse and neglect.

The spread of mandatory reporting requirements.

Since the introduction of mandatory reporting legislation in the US many countries, including Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden, have created quite general reporting duties requiring not only doctors but many other professionals like teachers, child care workers, and psychologists to report, but the nations with the most comprehensive laws are the USA, Canada and Australia.

The variations in mandatory reporting requirements.

The specific legal requirements among these countries vary considerably. There are differences in which people are mandated to report, ranging from all citizens to selected groups like teachers and social workers. There are also differences in what type of suspected abuse must be reported. In some jurisdictions in Australia, for instance, the state of mind necessary is “belief on reasonable grounds” while other states specify a “suspicion on reasonable grounds” and others talk about mandated reporters becoming “aware of,” or “reasonably suspecting or knowing.” These variations are fraught with difficulties. To begin with they all refer to states of mind, a notoriously difficult thing to describe or ascertain precisely.  Someone trying to decide whether to report can often be forgiven a period of confusion and indecision about what the law requires.  When these difficulties are combined with variations surrounding degrees of professional confidentiality and timeframes for reporting it becomes clear that mandatory reporting is not a straightforward solution to the problem it is designed to address – the protection of children from all kinds of abuse.