Social Workers and Child Abuse Reporting | Law Note

May 1, 2013

Social workers may find themselves torn between their commitment to their clients’ interests and their responsibility to the larger society when faced with the possibility of reporting child abuse to authorities. Social workers throughout the United States have been required to disclose confidential information, sometimes against a client’s wishes, in order to comply with mandatory reporting laws on child and elder abuse and neglect. Social workers were initially concerned about the requirements’ effects and their relationships with clients; however, they have come to realize the public has a compelling interest in this social policy.

For social workers, the reporting of child abuse represents far more than an ethical dilemma. Mandatory reporting laws not only require social workers to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, but also there can be varying levels of civil and criminal liability for failing to do so. The level of attention given to these issues by federal and state governments emphasizes the importance society places on the need for intervention on behalf of children victimized by abuse.

This law note discusses the legal issues social workers confront when dealing with child abuse and neglect situations. First, this note provides a brief history of the federal legislation that established mandated federal standards for CPS and the reporting of suspected child abuse. Second, this note surveys state statutes and case law, providing an overview of the current state of mandatory reporting laws. Third, it identifies the various ethical considerations social workers face in meeting their reporting obligations. Fourth, it discusses emerging issues related to child abuse reporting that may be complex and require further analysis. Finally, it provides practical steps for reporting child abuse.

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