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Survey Reveals Wide Latitude in Reporting Abuse

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Finding that a substantial number of educators and health-care professionals regularly violate state laws by deciding not to report some cases of suspected child abuse, a federally funded report urges states to re-examine statutes mandating the reporting of all such cases.

The study, conducted by the rand Corporation for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that mandatory-reporting laws have "resulted in enormous increases in the numbers of reports being made to protective agencies."

But nearly 40 percent of the principals, child-care providers, physicians, and counselors surveyed for the study indicated that personal discretion had guided them in at least some cases and they had failed to report suspected abuse even though the statutes required them to.

"The laws have been effective in getting a lot of people to report a lot of abuse," said Gail L. Zellman, a psychologist at rand who conducted the study along with Robert M. Bell. "But there is a growing concern about requiring people to report to child-protective services, which appear to be less and less capable of handling them."

Ms. Zellman noted that educators, more than any other group, have been prosecuted for violating mandatory-reporting laws. In recent months, for example, teachers in Georgia and in Jefferson County, Colo., were arrested in connection with failing to report cases of suspected abuse, although charges in the Georgia case were later dropped.

Rather than continue to prohibit educators from using their professional judgment, she suggested, states should consider training them to detect signs of abuse and neglect and allowing them to use their discretion in reporting cases.

"Our evidence shows that it is the more knowledgeable people who are doing that anyway," she said. "Perhaps they should work within the framework of the law rather than outside the law."

School officials said last week that the mandatory-reporting laws have been effective in helping children, and cautioned against weakening them.

"Some discretion on the part of principals to be able to determine the severity of the problem might be helpful," said Gary Salyers, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, "but I would have concerns about not reporting every case personally."

"Let the public-service agency do the research, rather than me," he said.

Gary Marx, assistant executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that "good judgment always needs to be applied" in such cases.

"But I don't want anyone to feel comfortable about not reporting an incident," he added.

Based on a survey of 1,196 educators and health-care providers in 15 states, the rand study is considered the broadest examination to date of the effects of one of the most widely used tools for detecting and dealing with child abuse and neglect.

Since the 1960's, the report notes, every state has had in place laws requiring professionals who come in contact with children to report to child-protective agencies signs of possible abuse.

Such laws "have clearly succeeded in encouraging the identification of child abuse and neglect," the study notes. By 1986, it says, child-protective services received an average of 2 million reports annually, compared with 669,000 reports in 1976.

Such an increase, it says, "has created a crisis in child protection--one in which overloaded child-protective-agency staff and administrators find it increasingly difficult to offer productive services to child-abuse reports."

Moreover, it says, there has been little attention paid to the effects of the laws on mandatory reporters, who have had to make large numbers of reports and to face increasingly overburdened agencies.

In an effort to gauge the impact of the laws, the rand researchers surveyed a national sample of mandatory reporters to determine their past reporting behavior, as well as their responses to "vignettes," or hypothetical cases, used to measure their reactions to different situations.

The researchers also interviewed child-protective-agency personnel in 6 of the 15 states to ascertain policies and operational procedures, as well as their responses to reports from mandated sources and others.

The study found that three-fourths of all respondents said they had made a child-abuse report at some time in their careers. Nearly all--92 percent--of elementary-school principals and 84 percent of secondary-school principals, it found, had reported, but only 50 percent of child-care providers had done so.

While most respondents said that stopping maltreatment or providing help for the family was an important reason in their decision to make a report, 71 percent said the legal requirement to do so influenced their action.

"If the child-protective service is going to build any kind of case, of course they need information from me as much as from anyone else,'' explained Mr. Salyers, who is principal of the Linwood Elementary School in Milwaukie, Ore.

But the survey also found that nearly 40 percent of the respondents had suspected abuse or neglect but declined to make a report, and most of those reported some cases but failed to report others.

Sixty percent of those who declined to report instances cited a lack of sufficient evidence as a very important reason for failing to do so. "The widespread importance of this judgment," the report states, ''clear8ly implies that some professional judgment and discretion enter into reporting decisions."

Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's National Legal Research Center and a consultant to the study, suggested that these results may be exaggerated.

"I doubt anyone would publicly admit that they didn't report through a mistake on their part," he said.

Among principals, the survey found, those who did not report tended to be those who perceive "negative consequences to the child reported'' and who were least knowledgeable about child-abuse reporting.

"Interestingly," it says, "previous child-abuse training was associated with lack of involvement in reporting."

The study also found that reporters tended to report cases of sexual abuse more often than those of physical abuse or neglect, and that a history of previous abuse, its severity, and recantation of the charges by an apparent victim also entered into their judgments.

In addition, respondents were found to be more likely to report cases involving families with low socioeconomic status.

"It was generally pretty subtle," said Ms. Zellman, "but there was the notion that these families are ones that need intervention."

Strained relations between reporters and child-protective agencies may also influence decisions on reporting abuse cases, the study found. Reporters are often unable to get through to overloaded agencies, it found, and the agencies seldom provide feedback to reporters on cases they have brought forward.

The study recommends that the agencies provide easier access, such as through dedicated telephone lines or facsimile machines.

Copies of the study, "The Role of Professional Background, Case Characteristics, and Protective Agency Response in Mandated Child Abuse Reporting," are available for $15 each from rand's Publications Department, 1700 Main St., P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, Calif. 90406-2138. The publication number is R-3825-HHS.

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