Expanding Child Abuse Laws Unlikely to Protect More Kids

High-profile crimes can generate watershed changes in policy and practice. The publicity surrounding the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson helped lead to passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. The abduction of Adam Walsh prompted enactment of the Missing Children Act of 1982.

Today, the Penn State sexual-abuse case has lawmakers scurrying to pass legislation to protect children. The general sentiment is that state and federal laws requiring suspicions of child abuse to be reported should be expanded and strengthened.

I’m not sure, however, whether that kind of legislation will protect more children from abuse. While there is a possibility that the current debate will improve laws and close the cracks in the system, we should not rush to expand mandatory reporting laws without care and deliberation.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, government agencies throughout the country received 3.3 million reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, involving some five million children. The agencies investigated two million of these reports, leaving about a million uninvestigated, primarily because they didn’t include necessary information (e.g., the name or address of the victim or offender) or because they didn’t meet the state’s definition of child abuse or neglect. These two million investigations found that 442,000 children were actually abused or neglected, leaving 1.6 million reports for which the investigators were unable to uncover sufficient evidence that abuse or neglect had occurred.

So, in the end, slightly more than one in five investigated reports of suspected child abuse and neglect are confirmed. This share, which is referred to as the “substantiation rate,” hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years.

If the allegation that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing boys had been reported and investigated, the substantiation rate suggests a 22 percent chance that an investigator would have determined that abuse probably took place. Had the report been made anonymously, the likelihood of substantiation would have been much lower; had it come from head coach Joe Paterno or a Penn State administrator, the likelihood of substantiation would have been greater.

Unlike many Pennsylvania counties, Centre County, which encompasses Penn State, does not have a child advocacy center, an agency specially equipped to handle child-abuse investigations. That makes it more likely that an investigator assigned to the case would have been unable to substantiate the claims that Sandusky was sexually molesting boys. Why am I so pessimistic? Because Sandusky had already been evaluated and cleared to become a foster parent and an adoptive parent.

So what would happen if new laws forced more citizens to report suspicions of child abuse or else face stiff punishments? In all likelihood, the number of reports would increase (which is probably already happening in Pennsylvania). The staffs of the agencies that investigate those reports would also have to increase. But they would likely be using the same tools they use today to determine whether abuse occurred, and the increased reports would probably cause the substantiation rate to decline.

With more money going to investigations, meanwhile, there would be even less funding for child advocacy centers and other such services. And child-welfare agencies would turn more of their focus to investigations rather than protection from abuse.

While I would like to believe that investigations alone increase the protection of children, I know otherwise. Forty years after the first federal mandatory reporting law was enacted, there isn’t a single study showing that investigations alone increase the safety of children. Investigations without services do not prevent abuse.

So what should we do with this watershed moment, which will pass all too quickly? Instead of trying to expand mandatory reporting laws, let’s ask a more fundamental question: What do we need to do to increase the safety and well-being of vulnerable children?

Richard J. Gelles is the dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice and a professor of child welfare and family violence at the University of Pennsylvania.


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