Reporting Suspected Maltreatment

The reporting of suspected abuse and neglect may be voluntary or mandatory.  Those who report alleged maltreatment are usually grouped into either the professional or nonprofessional category.  Professionals are people who encountered the child as part of their occupation, such as child daycare providers and medical personnel.  Nonprofessionals are people such as friends, relatives, and neighbors who did not have a relationship with the child based on their occupation. 

State statutes all include mandated reporting statutes that require certain individuals, called mandatory reporters, to identify maltreated children and to help protect them from harm.  Those designated as mandatory reporters are usually professionals who typically have frequent contact with children, including:

  • Social workers
  • Teachers and other school personnel
  • Physicians and other health-care workers
  • Mental health professionals
  • Child care providers
  • Medical examiners or coroners
  • Law enforcement officers

In about a third of the states, any person who suspects child abuse and neglect is required to report it.

The actual circumstances under which a mandatory reporter must make a report vary from state to state.  Typically, a report must be made when the reporter, in his or her official capacity, suspects or has reason to believe that a child has been abused or neglected, or when the reporter has knowledge of or observes a child being subjected to conditions that could reasonably result in harm to the child.  All states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories have enacted statutes requiring that the maltreatment of children be reported to a designated agency or official. 

Of course, anyone who suspects child maltreatment can report it.  Most states maintain toll-free telephone numbers for receiving reports of abuse or neglect, which can be made anonymously by non-mandatory, or volunteer, reporters.  States do find it helpful to their investigations, however, to know the identity of reporters and will keep that information confidential if possible.  Approximately 18 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands require mandatory reporters to provide their names and contact information, either at the time of the initial oral report or as part of a written report.

To receive federal grants under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), states must establish provisions for immunity from liability for individuals making good-faith reports, which are reports that, to the best of the reporter's knowledge, are not deliberately false or made as an act of malice.  This protects reporters from civil or criminal liability that they might otherwise incur, even if the report is unsubstantiated.  A report of suspected maltreatment begins the case process by which child protective services agencies work to ensure the safety of children.