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Exploring the contested role of mandatory reporting laws in the identification of severe child abuse and neglect

Mathews, Benjamin P. (2012) Exploring the contested role of mandatory reporting laws in the identification of severe child abuse and neglect. In Freeman, Michael (Ed.) Law and Childhood Studies. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, pp. 302-338.

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Abstract

Significant numbers of children are severely abused and neglected by parents and caregivers. Infants and very young children are the most vulnerable and are unable to seek help. To identify these situations and enable child protection and the provision of appropriate assistance, many jurisdictions have enacted ‘mandatory reporting laws’ requiring designated professionals such as doctors, nurses, police and teachers to report suspected cases of severe child abuse and neglect. Other jurisdictions have not adopted this legislative approach, at least partly motivated by a concern that the laws produce dramatic increases in unwarranted reports, which, it is argued, lead to investigations which infringe on people’s privacy, cause trauma to innocent parents and families, and divert scarce government resources from deserving cases. The primary purpose of this paper is to explore the extent to which opposition to mandatory reporting laws is valid based on the claim that the laws produce ‘overreporting’. The first part of this paper revisits the original mandatory reporting laws, discusses their development into various current forms, explains their relationship with policy and common law reporting obligations, and situates them in the context of their place in modern child protection systems. This part of the paper shows that in general, contemporary reporting laws have expanded far beyond their original conceptualisation, but that there is also now a deeper understanding of the nature, incidence, timing and effects of different types of severe maltreatment, an awareness that the real incidence of maltreatment is far higher than that officially recorded, and that there is strong evidence showing the majority of identified cases of severe maltreatment are the result of reports by mandated reporters. The second part of this paper discusses the apparent effect of mandatory reporting laws on ‘overreporting’ by referring to Australian government data about reporting patterns and outcomes, with a particular focus on New South Wales. It will be seen that raw descriptive data about report numbers and outcomes appear to show that reporting laws produce both desirable consequences (identification of severe cases) and problematic consequences (increased numbers of unsubstantiated reports). Yet, to explore the extent to which the data supports the overreporting claim, and because numbers of unsubstantiated reports alone cannot demonstrate overreporting, this part of the paper asks further questions of the data. Who makes reports, about which maltreatment types, and what are the outcomes of those reports? What is the nature of these reports; for example, to what extent are multiple numbers of reports made about the same child? What meaning can be attached to an ‘unsubstantiated’ report, and can such reports be used to show flaws in reporting effectiveness and problems in reporting laws? It will be suggested that available evidence from Australia is not sufficiently detailed or strong to demonstrate the overreporting claim. However, it is also apparent that, whether adopting an approach based on public health and or other principles, much better evidence about reporting needs to be collected and analyzed. As well, more nuanced research needs to be conducted to identify what can reasonably be said to constitute ‘overreports’, and efforts must be made to minimize unsatisfactory reporting practice, informed by the relevant jurisdiction’s context and aims. It is also concluded that, depending on the jurisdiction, the available data may provide useful indicators of positive, negative and unanticipated effects of specific components of the laws, and of the strengths, weaknesses and needs of the child protection system.

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ID Code: 49453
Item Type: Book Chapter
Keywords: Child abuse and neglect, Mandatory reporting laws, Exploring the overreporting claim, Government data on reporting - New South Wales, Public health
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > LAW AND LEGAL STUDIES (180000) > LAW (180100) > Law and Society (180119)
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Children & Youth Research Centre
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Law
Current > Schools > School of Law
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2012 Oxford University Press
Deposited On: 02 Apr 2012 11:49
Last Modified: 15 Feb 2013 13:51

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