Competing Values and Evidence: How Do We Evaluate Mandated Reporting and CPS Response?

The Promise of Big Data

The general issue of reporting should be understood in a broader context. “No single professional can have a full picture of the child’s needs and circumstances and, if children and families are to receive the right help at the right time, everyone who comes into contact with them has a role to play in identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action” (Her Majesty’s Government 2013, p. 8). Linkage of agency data systems and administrative data to survey data may hold particular promise in advancing our understanding of how to improve our responses to and prevention of maltreatment. This requires careful attention not only to the construction of linked data across public and private agencies but also to creating an ongoing feedback loop between data and policy (Jonson-Reid and Drake 2008). This will require that data systems include variables that are relevant to the logic models developed specific to the form of detection and CPS response in a given country or region.

We have already arrived at a place where technology exists to have some child welfare contacts be initiated automatically, without a report at all. One recent study (Putnam-Hornstein and Needell 2011) found that for a very small subpopulation with a large number of risk factors noted on their birth record, the likelihood of a child maltreatment report within the first 5 years of life was 89.5 %. It is an open question as to whether child welfare should consider taking a truly proactive stance and offering voluntary preventative services on the basis of such data. Such action might seem highly desirable or even inevitable if child protection is viewed as a public health issue. On the other hand, those persons persisting (wrongly we believe) in regard to child protective services as a punitive system might see such preemptive action as a violation of parental rights. As data systems are cross-linked, our ability to predict who will be referred in advance will increase, and if we are serious about a preventative role for CPS, there should be a discussion as to if and when such data should be used for voluntary service provision. Indeed, some states are currently triggering child protective assessments based solely on administrative data. Under the “Birth Match” program (Shaw et al. 2013), newborn children born to parents with prior terminations of parental rights are assessed without a report ever being filed. It may well be that in the future, we are able to use existing data to provide a level of accurate targeting for voluntary preventative services which is simply not currently possible.


In our view, many debates over the advisability of mandated reporting laws are clouded by two key problems. One has to do with the failure of the empirical literature to adequately undergird the current debate, and the second has to do with a failure to place mandated reporting laws within the broader framework of child protective services.

In some quarters, there is a long-standing and established “conventional wisdom” about the adverse consequences of mandated reporting. Unfortunately, much of it is contradicted by empirical data and properly nuanced, more precise, and more thorough analysis of concepts and issues. These contradictions range from simple misunderstandings (e.g., that unsubstantiated cases are equivalent to unnecessary reports) to inaccurate characterizations of the current system (e.g., that child protective services are overwhelmed by their investigatory responsibilities) to broader misconceptions about the system in general. In order for the mandated reporting debate to move forward and for improvements to be made to child protection systems, all relevant discussions must be far more evidence based. We believe that most policy makers would prefer engaging in evidence-based policy making to the alternatives and mandated reporting policy is one area in which the evidence is strong enough to support such an approach.

Despite a long history of child protection services, we know surprisingly little about the outcomes for children and families who receive the most common and least intensive forms of services. We also know relatively little about children who receive investigations and no further services. This is undoubtedly partly true to methodological difficulties, including difficulties in establishing control groups. Clearly, the need for services as indicated by children reported far outstrips the current system’s ability to intervene. Without further evidence regarding what can be done within formal child protection, what can be done in conjunction with other agencies, and what can be done within the community, child protection practice will remain a disjointed system with a great deal of room for improvement.


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