Every person with a conscience is against child abuse. But for the first time in decades, policymakers are giving the most widely used intervention in child abuse cases — mandatory reporting — a second look.
In Colorado, a task force born of calls to strengthen mandatory reporting laws after a horrific abuse case has grown into something different: a look at whether these laws do what they are intended to do at all.
“The way our mandatory reporting system exists right now — my opinion is that it does more harm than it does good,” Jerry Milner told the state’s Mandatory Reporting Task Force last month.
Milner is former head of the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency tasked with child abuse prevention. He said listening to families, including children, who have been negatively impacted by intrusive and damaging investigations by child protective services changed his mind about a policy he once endorsed.
“There are things that warrant that intrusion, but it’s not the most typical situation, and the trauma that we inflict on families has given me quite a different perspective,” he said.
The Colorado task force is only the second one in the nation, after Massachusetts, to look closely at reforming laws that have long enjoyed broad bipartisan political support and met little organized resistance. It convenes at a time of national debate over family policing practices that harm vast numbers of children and parents of color, in particular, while repeatedly failing to help children who are most at risk of abuse.
In Colorado, mandatory reporters — those required under the law to report their suspicions of child abuse or neglect — include doctors, teachers, social workers and therapists and dozens of other professions. While anyone can call the state’s child abuse hotline, 73% of reports last year came from people identifying themselves as mandatory reporters, according to data provided by the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Colorado’s effort at reform arose from pressure to fill gaps in the state’s mandatory reporting system after the death of 7-year-old Olivia Gant in 2017. Gant’s mother, Kelly Turner, is serving a 16-year-sentence for the child’s death. Prosecutors said she faked her child’s illness, subjecting her to years of painful and unnecessary surgeries, procedures and medications. An investigation by The Denver Post revealed that some staff at Children’s Hospital Colorado had suspicions that the child was being abused, but that they had reported them to the hospital rather than law enforcement, child protection agencies or the state child abuse and neglect hotline. The hospital never passed along their concerns.
In response to the case, Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte issued a report in September 2021 recommending that state legislators clarify mandatory reporting laws — including by defining what it meant to require an “immediate” report, attaching training requirements to mandatory reporters, and specifying who is responsible for reporting suspicions in institutional settings like hospitals.
The recommendations seemed unlikely to encounter much resistance. Mandatory reporting laws around the country have reliably expanded from year to year since the 1960s, especially after high-profile abuse cases.
Not this time.
“We quickly learned that the bill would not be just a straight implementation of the recommendations in the report,” said Democratic state Rep. Meg Froelich, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in March 2022 for a bill intended to address the ombudsman’s concerns. “And that is why the bill makes a few agreed-upon changes and then charges a task force with looking at the many, many, maybe surprising points of contention.”
Even those “agreed-upon changes” fell apart.
The objections came from some unlikely places. It wasn’t just emergency room doctors, griping that they’d have to leave their patients’ sides to file a time-consuming report. Or first responders, who wanted to be able to designate somebody to make reports, rather than require it of every single person who became aware of a particular case of suspected abuse or neglect.
Advocates for survivors of violence also objected. Elizabeth Newman, public policy director for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told legislators at the March hearing that the organization supported mandatory reporting, but that “there are cases where mandatory reporting laws can be harmful.”
Many survivors of sexual assault say they were first victimized between the ages of 11 and 17, Newman said. Most don’t want to report to law enforcement. Laws requiring teachers, therapists or other trusted adults to make an immediate report can become another reason for teens and adolescents to stay silent, and not to seek support at all, she said.
Jennifer Eyl, executive director of Project Safeguard, an organization that supports survivors of gender-based violence in the Denver metro area, went further. Mandatory reporting laws make situations worse for survivors, she said.
“For many victims of domestic violence, risking continued abuse is less dangerous than having child protection involved and risking losing your children,” Eyl said. “For survivors of color, the risks of having child protection involved are exponentially greater.”
Staff at her organization would like confidential victims’ advocates to be exempt from reporting requirements. They say immediately reporting can stop people from seeking help, destroy fragile plans to seek safety, and escalate violence by an abuser who is tipped off by a child protection worker.
“Every day, they see the harm this causes and the ways in which it makes children less safe,” she told legislators.
At the start of the March 2022 hearing, Froelich believed there was consensus on defining “immediate,” and on clarifying that individual employees of an organization had a duty to report suspicions to child protection authorities, rather than to their institution.
By the time the bill became law in June 2022, only the task force remained.
A third of kids will have been part of an abuse or neglect investigation by 18
In the U.S. each year, child protective agencies investigate the cases of 3.5 million children on reports that they have been abused or neglected, according to federal data. That’s more than the annual number of kids who participate in Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts.
Though frequently shrouded in secrecy and shame, involvement with child protective services has become something like a national rite of passage. By the time they turn 18, around 1 in 3 children will have been investigated on suspicion that they have been abused or neglected, according to the best available estimate. For Black and Indigenous kids, it’s more than 1 in 2.
Nationally, critics of the system compare it to a kind of stop-and-frisk policing, and say the increasing number of reports over the decades only makes it less likely that agencies will identify the small minority of parents who are hurting their children.
“Those cases are needles in the haystack,” says Richard Wexler, who heads the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “You’re never going to find it if you keep making the haystack bigger.”
In communities that are heavily targeted by child protective services — especially Black and Indigenous families, and families in which either a parent or a child has a disability — fear of being reported can be pervasive.
Julie Reiskin is the executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. Her children are grown now, but when they were younger, they were well aware of the risks of having two mothers with disabilities. They knew of families who came under investigation by child protective services because of their disabilities.
“When my kids were growing up, they weren’t afraid of the bogeyman. They were afraid of social services,” Reiskin said. “People don’t think about how traumatic these investigations are for kids.”
Parents with disabilities are more often poor, and can have difficulty with transportation to doctor’s appointments or school events — conditions that can lead to reports of neglect. They sometimes also live in a state of nearly constant surveillance from mandatory reporters, says Alison Butler, a disability justice lawyer. They might have health aides at home, and more contact with people like occupational and physical therapists.
“What if, in your life, there was always somebody there? It’s like a cop always riding in your car — ‘Oh, you were speeding. Oh, you ran that stop sign,’” she said. “If we all had highlighted our very worst moments of parenting, many of us could end up in the system. Most of us are doing an acceptable job with our kids.”
Butler directs Denver’s Division of Disability Rights. She previously worked for the Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, which represents 90% of Colorado parents who have been accused of neglect or abuse. Half of the organization’s clients have disabilities, according to its data. Butler believes that’s an undercount.
Parents accused of abuse and neglect have few of the protections that defendants are guaranteed in criminal cases, the right to see evidence against them and to confront their accusers, for example. Most don’t have access to lawyers while their homes are searched and their children are questioned and their bodies examined. The burden of proof is lower than in criminal cases.
But the stakes are high: The threat in any investigation is that the children will be taken away.
“For many of us, that’s the worst torture that any of us can imagine,” says Indra Lusero, an attorney who has advocated for families facing abuse and neglect allegations.
Ombudsman: No evidence that mandatory reporting protects kids
Mandatory reporting laws have their origins in Colorado, where a doctor named Henry Kempe wrote a groundbreaking 1962 medical journal article called “The Battered-Child Syndrome.” Doctors, Kempe said, were overlooking signs of grievous physical abuse of children, unwilling to consider the possibility that parents were hurting their children. His recommendation that doctors be required to report their suspicions made intuitive sense, and led quickly to the adoption of mandatory reporting laws around the country.
But there’s no evidence that mandatory reporting actually protects children from abuse.
“If you find it, let me know,” Villafuerte, the child protection ombudsman, said in an interview.
The lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of mandatory reporting laws is something of an open secret among researchers.
In 2017, international public health researchers led by Jill McTavish, who teaches at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, wrote that they had done a systematic search for studies that rigorously analyzed the effectiveness of mandatory reporting laws anywhere in the world, in terms of child or family outcomes. They found none.
“But this makes sense in a way because mandatory reporting was brought in before ‘evidence-based medicine’ was a big thing, so there was no sense back then that one needed to evaluate policy decisions,” McTavish said in an email. Her team ended up synthesizing qualitative studies that found a raft of potentially harmful effects of mandatory reporting.
Family separation is the most obvious harmful effect of mandatory reporting; children experience significant and lasting trauma when they are taken from their parents.
But there is also a lot of evidence that things can go wrong when a report is made, even when it doesn’t lead to an abuse finding. An investigation itself can be terrifying and traumatic, and can change how people engage with teachers, therapists and other mandatory reporters, research has shown.
“We’re responding to families who are already struggling with the stressors of life, and we add one more thing to that mix,” Ida Drury told Colorado’s mandatory reporting task force in early February. Drury, a member of the task force, is a professor and child welfare expert at the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Like many parents, Butler, the disability justice advocate who works for the city of Denver, has had a brush with child protective services. Though her situation wasn’t typical, it came at a time in 2014 when her family was under a great deal of stress. Butler was diagnosed with cancer that year, and underwent chemotherapy. As if that weren’t enough, a stalker — against whom Butler’s husband had a criminal restraining order — called her child’s school and made false allegations.
As attorneys, Butler and her husband were unusually well-equipped to fight off a false report; she believes they were treated better than most parents. Still, their child, then 7, was questioned at school without the parents’ knowledge, and their home was searched. The experience affected their relationship with the school.
“There was a cloud for a while after that,” Butler says.
Black parents are much more likely to be reported, lose children
A fresh willingness to examine mandatory reporting as a policy is in part a result of increased awareness of racial injustice and policing that emerged after George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020. In many Black communities, child protective services are experienced not as a health intervention but as a uniquely intimate and terrifying form of policing.
As University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts wrote in her 2022 book “Torn Apart,” Black parents are more likely to be reported, more likely to be separated from their children, and more likely to lose their rights to see their children again, continuing a historical pattern of violent family separation that dates back to slavery.
These patterns hold true in Colorado, where Black children are much more likely than other children to exit the foster care system at a young age with no family at all.
Problems in the system have led some academics, organizers and mothers to call for the child welfare system to be abolished completely, starting with mandatory reporting. They point out that in the beginning of the pandemic, mandatory reporting all but disappeared as schools closed and regular doctors’ visits were postponed. Despite fears that children would be less safe, child abuse fatalities and serious injuries declined. Some researchers believe eviction moratoriums, direct cash aid and increased unemployment benefits protected families from unsafe environments and helped reduce the stressors that can lead to neglect and abuse.
Critics of the child welfare system say Colorado’s mandatory reporting task force is unlikely to go far enough. Wexler, the advocate for child protection reform, said he’s happy about the diversity of viewpoints in the makeup of the group, but that its mandate of improving guidelines for mandatory reporters is disappointing.
“That means that the only option that’s really going to fix this is off the table — which is to get rid of mandatory reporting entirely,” Wexler said.
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“What I believe is that culturally, all of us, in our systems — doctors, nurses, lawyers — we are taught that mandatory reporting keeps children safe,” Villafuerte said. The system is expansive and well entrenched; it includes hotlines, staff members, legal frameworks, she said. “If we are going to reorganize those systems or dismantle or rebuild them — it’s not as if this isn’t an institutional practice that all of us have been told for 30, 40, 50 years keeps children safe. You’re talking about having to address a number of systems that have gone unquestioned for decades.”
Villafuerte said that it’s not enough to say “it fails, blow it up.” Children and families deserve better than that, she said.
“At the end of the day, children are being harmed. Abuse is real. We have an obligation to protect them,” she said.
Mandatory reporting “completely failed” Olivia Gant, her grandpa said
When the state task force first met in December, the members expressed their hopes for the outcomes of their two-year effort. The need to clarify the law came up a lot. The need for more training.
Many of the members expressed the traditional view of mandatory reporting — that it’s an important tool to help protect children from abuse, and that it should be clarified so that children at risk of being hurt by their parents don’t fall through the cracks.
But there were other perspectives, too. Jill Cohen, a social worker with the Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, which represents parents accused of abuse and neglect, said she’d been able to help families by sticking with them, by offering support rather than punishment, “not always having to rely on a hotline and passing the buck,” she said. “I think that it’s a very undervalued way to show love and support to children, is to show love and care for their parents.”
Some on the task force had personal experience with the child welfare system. More than one had experience from the perspective of a child placed in foster care, and again as a parent under investigation.
Nate Hailpern, who grew up in the Denver area, spent time in foster care as a child. (Hailpern has previously described running away from institutionalized care to find his mother.) Later, his own children were put in foster care, twice, he told the task force. Hailpern now works with other parents who are seeking to reunite with their children, as he and his wife did.
“Mandatory reporting affects a lot of people — a lot of my friends and family,” Hailpern said.
Samantha Carwyn has been a mandatory reporter in a variety of capacities — for human services agencies, in a domestic violence shelter, as a special ed teacher, and as a foster parent. Carwyn was also a foster kid herself; later, as an adult, she fought off false allegations during a divorce, she told the task force.
“I want to think about how we’re recognizing that those who are reported on tend to be Black and Brown and have under-resourced communities,” said Carwyn, who is Black. She said she’d like to see more implicit bias training, and more recognition of the impact of false allegations.
Villafuerte told the task force that one of her hopes is “right-sizing” the child-welfare system.
“When I look at mandated reporting, it is the front door to everything,” she said. “We can say there’s too many kids in foster care, and try to fix that. But if you don’t fix mandated reporting, that doesn’t matter. We can say there’s an over-representation of parents, but if you don’t address the front door, you can’t address that either.”
At the end of the first meeting, members of the public were invited to speak. Two of the speakers painted a picture of a system that punishes without protecting. One, a mother, cried as she described the impact on her children of a recent investigation, which she described as false and unnecessary. Another was the grandfather of Olivia Gant.
“Y’all seem like a highly competent group of people,” said Lonnie Gautreau. “It completely failed my granddaughter and I can’t say more than that.”
In 2022, 71% of reports didn’t warrant investigation, just 5.6% were substantiated
Part of the challenge facing agencies, Villafuerte said later, is that Colorado’s child protective agencies have faced a sharp increase in the number of reports in recent years. When the state introduced a hotline in 2015 to make it easier for people to report their suspicions of abuse and neglect, Coloradans responded enthusiastically.
In 2014, before the hotline became operational, agencies received 82,823 reports of suspected abuse or neglect in Colorado, according to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services. In 2022, they received 114,127 reports.
Educators made around a third of all reports last year in Colorado. Law enforcement and legal staff made 14%, around the same number of reports as mental health professionals. Doctors and other medical personnel made 9% of reports. Social service providers made 4.2% of reports. Other mandatory reporters, including day care staff, accounted for a combined 2.4% of reports.
Most reports — 71% in 2022 — are screened out, meaning that agencies don’t assess them, most often because they’re unlikely to meet the threshold of abuse or neglect, or they’re duplicates. Others are investigated, but unfounded. Just 5.6% of abuse or neglect reports were substantiated in 2022.
“We are expending an extraordinary amount of resources on cases that are never founded,” Villafuerte said. “You’ve diluted the total workforce that can respond to those calls.”
That’s significant, she said, not only for the due process rights of families who are subjected to needless investigations, but also to child protection workers asked to make them.
By far, the most reports are about neglect, not abuse. They include many cases that have more to do with poverty than bad parenting — kids who come to school in the winter without a jacket, or who are living in their car, or don’t have access to appropriate child care while their parents are working.
Does this mean that Coloradans are making too many reports?
No, said Villafuerte.
“I think it’s dangerous to say I want to see fewer reports. That isn’t the case,” she said. “I want to see reports when I believe a child is in danger, you bet.”
Rather, Villafuerte would like to see “better-quality reports.” Most mandatory reporters in Colorado aren’t trained on their responsibilities; some don’t even know they are mandatory reporters. The ombudsman has advocated for more training for all mandatory reporters.
Critics say better training is not enough.
“Training won’t help if mandatory reporters are still terrified that they’ll get in trouble if they don’t make a report,” said Wexler.
Nationally and in Colorado, teachers and other school personnel, who get more training than most professions, make more reports than any other group, according to state and federal data. Their reports are also the least likely to be substantiated.
Some task force members suggested that part of the answer may be in weeding out neglect cases that might be dealt with better with supportive measures rather than punitive ones.
Others believe that families need much more support in general — more curiosity about the struggles they’re facing, more adaptation across cultures. More money to meet their children’s needs.
Carwyn, the task force member, was just a toddler when a teacher at her sister’s school made the report that led to her being put into foster care, and eventually adopted by family members. She can’t say whether the report was necessary or not. What Carwyn does know is that her mother needed a lot of things she never got, or got too late: stable housing, for one thing. Access to the substance use treatment she sought, but was denied. A fraction of the resources that eventually went into out-of-home care for the seven children who were taken from her, as one report followed another.
“We cannot expect one teacher or one social worker to support entire communities,” Carwyn said. “We say we value family, but we as a country do not universally support that.”