When to Report Child Abuse or Neglect Reporting Abuse and Neglect Responsibility to Report

Unless you’re a hermit, you’ve probably witnessed child abuse or neglect. Reporting it is most unpleasant. Though you may be a person who never shirks an unpleasant responsibility, it is usually a difficult decision for several other reasons. First, without enough weighty evidence, it could make things worse for the child.  Understaffing in social services departments sometimes results in poor follow-though. That could increase the probability that things will turn-out worse for the child. Second, the perpetrator could take revenge on you, if he/she figures out who reported it.  Third, there can be a conflict between your moral obligation and your legal obligation. Fourth, there might be a conflict between your legal obligation and the demands of your employer. In short there are both legal and moral issues that sometimes clog your brain.

Every state in the U.S. has some form of mandatory reporting law. In many states the laws are very broad, requiring any adult aware of the abuse or neglect to report. The laws of the state where the incident(s) occurred are what matter for the child. An excellent source of state-by-state summaries of laws is www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws policies/state/. In some states any kind of domestic abuse is considered to be child abuse whether or not the child is the direct victim. It is abusive to allow a child to witness the abuse of anyone in the household.

Laws require your obedience when you are within the jurisdiction of the entity that enacted the laws. If your source of information is phone, internet or snail mail, you might not be where the danger exists. Nevertheless, there is a moral obligation to consider the child’s well-being. 


Laws typically require you to report as soon as you become suspicious that the abuse or neglect has recently occurred.  You could be thinking, “I’ve known this kid’s mom for years.  She’s been a good mom most of the time. This’s the first time I’ve seen her step across the line. She’s under extreme duress right now. Who wouldn’t be in her circumstances? If I report the abuse, that might shove her over the edge.  Besides, cases that Social Services has botched were in the news just weeks ago. If they don’t handle this one delicately…” Then you seach other ways to help. You could talk with the mom yourself, or give her a gift card for free child care.  You could always report the situation later, IF you start to see a pattern.

This is one of many possible scenarios.  You could also have concerns about whether the foster care system in your area could handle one more case, how painful it will be for the child to go into foster care and a new school. What if the child comes from a high profile family? Would it ruin the parent’s career, so that he could no longer make a living? Would foster care become a permanent situation?

It might help to realize that early reporting is better than late reporting in that social services agencies are usually reluctant to snatch the child out of the home.  The preferred approach is to give the abuser support to promote change, while continuing to monitor the child’s safety.  It might take some informal education, a little financial assistance, respite child care or mental health care.  The abuser is more likely to get the needed help when earlier incidents are reported.  Without intervention incidents become more frequent or more intense. Then the consequences for both the child and the abuser could be exponentially magnified.

Direct Consequences for the Reporter

Sometimes a perpetrator will threaten you after the official response to your report.  This actually happened to me.  To my face and to others the perpetrator threatened to kill me. I reported the threats also. The social worker told the perpetrator that, if anything were to happen to me she may never see her kids again. She repeated the threats, she got more warnings. On the day of the custody hearing, my nerves were frazzled. I didn’t want to see the woman face-to-face.  I told this to the district attorney, who made arrangements to have me waiting in a protected location near the court.  There I sat praying for a good outcome to the case and for the courage to testify if they called me to the court.  As it turned out, the D.A. was able to get enough evidence without my testimony, the children were placed with a close relative, and my sworn testimony wasn’t necessary. Would I make the same decision again? Emphatically, yes!

Another possible consequence to you could be that you’ll never see the child again. If you love the child and care deeply for her, this can be extremely painful.  Whether you are the child’s parent, aunt, pediatrician, teacher, neighbor, or school nurse, this kind of consequence can scar you. The impact is compounded if you have been the only confidant for the child, he has confided in you, and he’s begged you not to tell. It could happen that after being removed from the home, he will no longer have you as a resource.  

Four considerations might help:

  *  Social services and law enforcement agencies will not tell the perpetrator who made the report. If he finds out, it will be by other means.  How likely that is depends mostly on how well the perpetrator knows you and how you report.

  *  You are strong enough and resourceful enough to recover; the child is not.

  *  There is a God who can and will handle the fall-out from the problem and direct the process that is way beyond your control. His help is there for the asking.

  * There are ways to make the report so that even the agency receiving it won’t know its source, but anonymous reporting makes it harder to supply the necessary evidence.

Conflict Between Moral Issues and Legal Issues

There is no perfect civil or criminal law. Every human law has loopholes. Circumstances that are not covered in the wording of the law are always possible.  When you are sure there is a conflict between what is moral and what is legal, you should always give the moral conclusion greater weight. This is the principle involved.  The boundary is blurred, though. There are moral considerations about breaking the law, too.

Discussing implications of this principle in adequate depth would take a course in ethics. You don’t have time to enroll in an ethics class when confronted with a decision about whether or not to report child abuse or neglect.  If you’re preparing for a career that frequently entails requirements to report, now is the time to take that ethics course. If your educational program doesn’t offer such a course, demand one.  When confronted with suspicion of child abuse or neglect, the best you can do is to pray and use your most careful judgment, then pray more for a good outcome.

Conflict With Your Employer’s Requirements

Most employers providing children’s services require employees to report abuse or neglect incidents directly to superiors before reporting to civil authorities.  Superiors at work don’t want to be embarrassed about not being aware of something within their domain of responsibility. Furthermore the employer is vulnerable to criminal prosecution if the perpetrator is an employee.  At the very least the company or agency could suffer damage to its public reputation and thereby lose business. The employer wants you to go through the proper channels, and considers itself first in the reporting chain.

The employer, of course, wants to protect itself.  Reporting to your superiors first or to civil authorities first is your judgment call. You probably won’t get into legal trouble by reporting to your employer first – as long as you very shortly afterward also report to the appropriate government agency.  When an employee or your employer’s contracted worker is the perpetrator, it is probably wiser to report to the government first.  You might lose your job over this move, because the employer could go out of business.  It’s better to lose a job, though, than to endorse criminal behavior by your passivity. Moveover, if you fail to report, you could be associated with the criminal behavior by the fact that you work for the perpetrator.

Real life may have dumped a reporting decision in your lap. If not, the above discussion may be your first exposure to the complexity of the choices. It’s impossible to give a one-size-fits-all solution, but government law is the best set of human guidelines available. Professional colleagues or counselors can help you process the guidelines. To work-up more courage, read A Man Named Dave, a book by David Pelzer.