Mandatory Reporting: Essential Insights for Child-Centric Organizations

Laura Rogers July 11, 2024

For institutions and organizations entrusted with the care of children, such as schools, daycares, hospitals, faith-based communities, camps and sports teams, the responsibility to safeguard their well-being is vital. Understanding the intricacies of mandatory reporting laws concerning child abuse isn’t just a legal obligation; it’s a moral imperative in ensuring the safety and protection of children and vulnerable adults under their supervision.

Failure to adhere to these reporting mandates can have significant consequences, not only for the individuals involved but, in some states also for the organization. The ramifications of non-reporting can range from criminal penalties and in some states also civil liabilities, posing significant risks to both reputation and operational integrity.

This underscores the critical need for these entities to proactively ensure their policies and procedures are compliant with regulatory requirements. Often, it is best to engage with third-party compliance consultants, specialists well-versed in establishing robust protocols, procedures, and ongoing reviews tailored to meet the stringent requirements of mandatory reporting. By doing so, organizations can navigate the complex landscape of child protection laws with confidence, mitigating the risk of non-compliance and safeguarding the welfare of the children in their care.

The Emergence of Mandatory Reporting: Historically, the epidemic of child maltreatment, including physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse was left untreated until the mid the 20th century. Beginning in the 1940’s and 1950’s, with amplified concerns regarding child protection, a small group of pediatric radiologists began conducting research using x-ray, to identify and make visible previously unrecognizable internal injuries inflicted on children by violent parents and other adults. 

Dr. Henry Kempe was the first pediatrician to conduct a long-term study to examine and document child battering. In 1962, Kempe published the influential article, The Battered Child Syndrome[i], which urged doctors to consider that “children exhibiting symptoms such as fractures, soft tissue swellings, and skin bruising”[ii] were victims of child physical abuse who could potentially suffer permanent injury or death.[iii]

Spurred on by discussion resulting from The Battered Child Syndrome, in 1963 states began to implement laws requiring specified people to mandatorily report suspected child abuse. By 1967, all states had passed some form of a mandatory reporting law, but reporting requirements varied significantly. Initially, some states required only physicians to report suspected abuse.

On January 31, 1974, Congress enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)[v][vi] which created the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, the National Clearing House on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, and established grants based on prevention and treating child maltreatment. CAPTA did not create a federal mandatory reporting requirement, but it did mandate that states pass mandatory reporting provisions to be eligible for certain federal grant money.

Mandatory Reporting Requirements: While every state in the United States now has a mandatory reporting law in place, reporting requirements do differ.

Mandatory Reporters: Many states require only a specified list of professionals (medical professionals, attorneys, teachers, etc.) to report child abuse, while other states have a more varied and extensive list of mandatory reporters while still other states require every adult to report.  Most states limit reporting obligations to persons living in the state, but a few states require any adult who is aware of the abuse to report.

Voluntary Reporters: In states where every adult is not a mandatory reporter, most if not all states authorize every adult to be a voluntarily reporter.

Clergy as Mandatory Reporters: In many states, persons defined as clergy are exempt from mandatory reporting if the information was learned during a privileged pastoral communication.  A minority of states statutes restrict the use of the pastoral privilege exception if the communication pertains to child abuse, while other states do not include a pastoral privileged exception in the statute.

For voluntary reporters, a handful of states include clergy as a voluntary reporter but continue to provide for a pastoral privileged communication.  A handful of other states include clergy as a voluntary reporter and restrict the use of the pastoral privilege exception if the communication pertains to child abuse.  A few state statutes do not mention any pastoral privilege regarding voluntary clergy reporting and one state does not mention clergy as a mandatory or voluntary reporter.

Standard to Report: The standard to report and the terminology used to describe the mandatory reporting of child abuse varies between states. Phrases such as probable cause to believe, reasonable cause to believe or suspect, or reasonable suspicion to believe is the typical type of language used in state statutes. An explanation of these standards is often included in the statute or can be found in state case law.

Statute of Limitations on Reporting: In many states, the obligation to report abuse expires when the child becomes an adult.  In a few states the obligation does not expire when the child reaches adulthood. Several other states extend the reporting obligation if the alleged offender continues to have access to other children.  

Child Defined: Most states acknowledge that a child is a person under the age of 18, with many states including persons with intellectual disabilities in this definition. Several states identify that a child in the military, married or otherwise emancipated is not a child for the purpose of mandatory reporting.

Child Abuse Defined: In most states the definition of child abuse includes sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, or suspicious child deaths.  Some states include among other terms, abandonment, exhibiting inappropriate sexual behavior, or being subject to conditions that would result in child abuse.   

Failure to Report: In most states, willful failure to mandatorily report in accordance with state statute is a misdemeanor but can be elevated to a felony depending on the seriousness of the abuse or for second and subsequent failure to report. In several states, willful failure is a felony, and the penalty can be significant.  Criminal penalties for willful failure may include incarceration and up to several thousand dollars in fines and some states also allow civil penalties. In some states, institutions that fail to report or employers that interfere with reporting can face criminal and/or civil penalties.  

Delegation of Duty: Most states require the person who observed or suspects the abuse to personally report.  Even if an organization’s protocols require a mandatory reporter to report to a supervisor, this does not alleviate their statutory duty to report.  However, a few state statutes do allow for a mandatory reporter to delegate their duty by reporting to a supervisor who then assumes the mandatory reporting responsibility. 

Immunity: Criminal and civil immunity exists in every state for the mandatory or voluntary reporter who comply with statutory requirements.  Criteria providing for immunity differs amongst states, for example, a reporter who makes a report based on a good faith belief, or has reasonable cause to suspect, or reports in good faith, or reports in accordance with the statute, or with lack of malice. Immunity does not apply to offenders who report themselves.

False Reporting: Most states impose penalties for persons who willfully or intentionally make a false report. The penalties range from civil to criminal penalties and vary between misdemeanors to felonies depending on the seriousness of the alleged abuse reported.

The Bottom Line: Mandatory reporting is a valuable tool in assuring that children who may be victims of child abuse receive help and intervention.  It is vital for all child serving organizations and all persons who qualify as a mandated reporter to be aware of their current state statute and know the requirements of reporting.  In organizations that include staff and volunteers that are mandatory reports, it is important to offer annual mandatory reporting training to assure awareness of reporting obligations.

Organizations have engaged Guidepost Solutions as a child protection consultant to assure a complete understanding of the state’s mandatory reporting requirements and assure compliance through competent training. Our experts provide invaluable guidance, helping organizations navigate the nuances of state statutes, establish comprehensive reporting protocols, and deliver tailored training programs to ensure staff awareness and adherence.

[i] C. H. Kempe, Frederic N. Silverman, Brandt F. Steele, William Droegemuller, Henry K. Silver, ‘The Battered Child Syndrome’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 9 (1985): 143, originally published in Journal of the American Medical Association, 181 (1962): 17–24.

[ii] Ibid., 143.

[iii] Ibid.

[v] Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act 1974 Pl 93 247.

[vi] CAPTA was last authorized in 2010 and last amended in 2019.

Laura Rogers

Managing Director

Laura L. Rogers brings more than 30 years of prosecutorial/investigative and legal experience in state and federal criminal cases, grant making and policy creation.  Ms. Rogers life’s work has been dedicated to protecting victims of violence and abuse through front line prosecutions, policy creation and grant making.  At Guidepost, she is a member of the Faith Based Practice Group, Institutional Integrity team.