Reason Roundup

Another Analysis Suggests Mandatory Reporting Laws May Be Doing Children More Harm Than Good

Plus: Virginia lawmaker wants to criminalize parents who don't affirm child's gender identity, inflation is up 8.2 percent over the past 12 months, and more...


A new investigative series looks at child welfare system deficiencies, from mandatory reporting laws to child protective services search policies. It finds that policies meant to protect kids may be putting them and their families in harm's way.

Mandatory reporting laws say that certain classes of professionals are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse and neglect to authorities. Federal law requires states to have such laws in place.

While mandatory reporting might seem at first rather uncontroversial—one hopes that any adult, mandated or not, would report suspected child abuse—the nature of these laws leads to a lot of unfounded reporting. Mandatory reporters who fail to do so face penalties ranging from criminal charges to professional sanctions and loss of occupational licenses, so it behooves them to report liberally. ("Mandatory reporters are required to report the facts and circumstances that led them to suspect that a child has been abused or neglected" but "do not have the burden of providing proof that abuse or neglect has occurred," notes a report from the U.S. Children's Bureau.) This can lead to a lot of false reports of abuse that cause major headaches and heartaches for the families involved.

The problem is exacerbated by states perpetually expanding the list of people considered mandatory reporters.

In Pennsylvania, "the vast expansion of the child protection dragnet ensnared tens of thousands of innocent parents, disproportionately affecting families of color living in poverty," reported NBC News and ProPublica on Wednesday. Their investigation found that "while the unintended and costly consequences are clear, there's no proof that the reforms have prevented the most serious abuse cases….Instead, data and child welfare experts suggest the changes may have done the opposite."

Reason has long been warning about the downsides of mandatory reporting laws. "Last year, mandatory-reporting laws led to more than 3 million child-abuse 'reports' in the United States," noted Lisa Snell in a post two decades ago for Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website. "Yet child-welfare agencies managed only to substantiate with evidence fewer than one-third of these cases."

Since then, states have drastically expanded the bounds of these laws. Mandatory reporters now include not only groups like social workers, teachers, health care professionals, and child care providers, but also computer technicians, drug counselors, parole officers, employees and volunteers at day camps and recreation centers, film processors, animal control officers, clergy, and college staff in some states. "In approximately 18 States and Puerto Rico, any person who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report," notes the Children's Bureau report.

In Pennsylvania, "in the five years after the reforms took effect, the state's child abuse hotline was inundated with more than 1 million reports of child maltreatment, state data shows," report ProPublica and NBC News:

More than 800,000 of these calls were related not to abuse or serious neglect, but to lower-level neglect allegations often stemming from poverty, most of which were later dismissed as invalid by caseworkers.

The number of children reported as possible victims of abuse or serious neglect increased by 72% compared to the five years prior, triggering Child Protective Services investigations into the well-being of nearly 200,000 children from 2015 to 2019, according to a ProPublica and NBC News analysis of federal Department of Health and Human Services data. From this pool of reports, child welfare workers identified 6,000 more children who might have been harmed than in the five previous years. But for the vast majority of the 200,000 alleged victims — roughly 9 in 10 — county agencies dismissed the allegations as unfounded after inspecting families' homes and subjecting parents and children to questioning.

The expanded reporting requirements were even less effective at detecting additional cases of sexual abuse. Some 42,000 children were investigated as possible sex abuse victims from 2015 to 2019 — an increase of 42% from the five years prior — but there was no increase in the number of substantiated allegations, the analysis of federal data showed. In other words, reforms enacted in response to a major sex abuse scandal led to thousands more investigations, but no increase in the number of children identified as likely victims.

And Pennsylvania is far from alone in expanding its mandatory reporting requirements:

Over the past decade, at least 36 states have enacted laws to expand the list of professionals required by law to report suspicions of child abuse or imposed new reporting requirements and penalties for failing to report, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group representing state governments.

Some legal experts and child welfare reform activists argue these laws have created a vast family surveillance apparatus, turning educators, health care workers, therapists and social services providers into the eyes and ears of a system that has the power to take children from their parents.

Being investigated by child protective services can be a disturbing experience for parents and children alike, and even lead to children being temporarily removed from their parents' homes. It can also lead to a range of other invasive measures.

Social workers frequently search homes without a warrant, according to another report from ProPublica and NBC News. New York City's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) "obtains an average of fewer than 94 entry orders a year to inspect homes, meaning it has a warrant less than 0.2% of the time" it conducts searches, they reported yesterday.

And it's not just New York City:

Across the nation, child protective services agencies investigate the home lives of roughly 3.5 million children every year, according to statistics from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Only about 5% of them are ultimately found to have been physically or sexually abused.

With rare exceptions, all of these investigations include at least one home visit, and often multiple, according to a review of all 50 states' child welfare statutes and agency investigative manuals.

Yet in a ProPublica and NBC News survey that drew detailed responses from 40 state child welfare agencies, all said they would only obtain a warrant or court order to search a home — or call the police for help — in rare cases when they are denied entry. None said they keep any data on how often they get an entry order.

It's a staggering reality — likely millions of warrantless searches a year — and one that has not been reported before.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in In the Interest of Y.W.-B. that orders for social worker home visits require a showing of probable cause similar to that which would be required for a police search. "We expressly hold that there is no 'social worker exception' to compliance with constitutional limitations on an entry into a home without consent or exigent circumstances," wrote the justices.

But many families comply with warrantless searches because they don't know their rights, or worry that exercising them will lead to worse consequences. In New York City, report NBC News and ProPublica, "caseworkers frequently say things that are coercive and manipulative in order to get inside homes without going to a judge, according to interviews with more than three dozen former ACS workers, New York City Family Court judges, parents, children and attorneys."

Social workers are often thought of as altruistic public servants. But all too often they act like cops who aren't required to play by constitutional rules.

That was the gist of a recent piece in The New Republic, by Emily Cooke. "Since mid-2020, as outrage over police violence reached an apex and calls to defund police departments gained momentum, it has seemed obvious to many on the left that social work is the solution," notes Cooke.

"It seems like common sense, the idea that you could reduce violence by diverting money from bloated police departments and sinking it into programs populated by social workers," she writes. But critics of this idea—including some social workers—"suspect that any substitution of their colleagues for police would amount to dressing wolves in sheep's clothing.…The concern is that if you measure in terms of the power to coerce, surveil, and inflict lasting harm, social workers are, thanks to very nature of the job, cops by another name."

Cooke's piece also delves into the problems of mandatory reporting, noting that "only a quarter of children end up in foster care because of abuse; the majority are put there because of alleged neglect"—a vague category with a subjective definition.

"Nationally, the families of more than half of Black children will be investigated by child protective services before those kids turn 18; in much of the country, more than one in 10 Black kids will be removed from their home," she writes. "In New York City, Black families are six times more likely than white families to be investigated and 11 times more likely to experience a separation. If social workers are by and large earnest, gentle, well-intentioned individuals, they are also unavoidably narcs, bound by laws demanding that they rat on the very communities they're supposed to help."


Virginia lawmaker wants to criminalize parents who don't affirm child's gender identity. Yesterday, Reason reported on an atrocious Michigan bill that would define gender transition treatment for minors as child abuse. Virginia is now considering a bit of ridiculous overreach in the opposite direction. WJLA reports that "Virginia parents could face a felony or misdemeanor charge if they do not affirm their child's sexual orientation and gender identity, according to a state lawmaker with plans to introduce the legislation in Virginia's upcoming legislative session."

The lawmaker, Virginia Delegate Elizabeth Guzman (D–Woodbridge), said her bill would define failing to affirm a child's sexual orientation or gender identity as child abuse. "If the child shares with those mandated reporters, what they are going through, we are talking about not only physical abuse or mental abuse, what the job of that mandated reporter is to inform Child Protective Services," Guzman told WJLA.

"And then that's how everybody gets involved. There's also an investigation in place that is not only from a social worker but there's also a police investigation before we make the decision that there is going to be a CPS charge."

"What could the penalties be if the investigation concludes that a parent is not affirming of their LGBTQ child? What could the consequences be?" 7News WJLA-TV Reporter Nick Minock asked Guzman on Thursday.

"Well, we first have to complete an investigation," Guzman answered. "It could be a felony, it could be a misdemeanor, but we know that CPS charge could harm your employment, could harm their education, because nowadays many people do a CPS database search before offering employment."

"What would you tell your Republican colleagues who say this is criminalizing parents? What would you tell them?" Minock asked Guzman.

"No, it's not. It's educating parents because the law tells you the do's and don'ts," Guzman answered. "So this law is telling you do not abuse your children because they are LGBTQ."


New inflation report confirms what consumers know.

The cost of everything from food to health care continued to go up last month, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Overall, prices were up 0.4 percent last month, putting the overall price increase at 8.2 percent for the past 12 months. In some categories, the climb has been ever more steep. For instance, "food prices have climbed by 11.2 percent in the past year, while energy prices are up by a whopping 19.7 percent despite falling by about 2 percent in September," notes Reason's Eric Boehm.


• "Mainstream media has portrayed PCP as a substance that makes people violent and erratic—but that's not the whole story," writes Zeus Tipado at DoubleBlind Mag.

• The Biden administration is extending the pandemic emergency designation through January 11, 2023—despite President Joe Biden recently declaring that the pandemic is over.

• The Biden administration has dramatically ratcheted up the deportation of Venezuelans:

• "The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) and the Orange County District Attorney's Office (OCDA) in California routinely violated civil rights and tainted numerous criminal cases by operating a jailhouse informant program that flouted multiple amendments to the U.S. Constitution," reports The Appeal.

Reason's Jacob Sullum reviews Can Legal Weed Win?