Sunday, November 27, 2011

Will Changes in Child Abuse Reporting Help or Hurt

Dean Richard J. Gelles of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice makes a compelling argument against expanding mandated reporter laws in Pennsylvania. As lawmakers scramble to make law in the wake of the Penn State sex scandal and cover-up, Gelles examines the ramification of a new more stringent reporting law in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer column.

Dean Gelles writes in part:

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.

The Inquirer column continues:

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.

Dean Gelles concludes:

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.

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