Scathing critiques of mandated reporting laws, Child Protective Services have ‘little basis in reality,’ say child welfare services experts

Efforts to improve Child Protective Services (CPS) would be more effective if they were based on evaluations of available data instead of assertions that are not supported by evidence, say child welfare services experts Brett Drake, Ph.D., and Melissa Jonson-Reid, Ph.D.

“Scathing critiques” of mandated reporting laws and Child Protective Services are unfounded, say two child welfare services experts.

All states have mandated reporting laws that compel specific people, usually CPS staff and helping professionals, to report suspected instances of child maltreatment.

These mandated reporting laws have generated complaints and controversy, and the current child welfare system is being questioned by a fairly small but vocal group of people, including some professionals who have asserted that current mandated reporting laws may do more harm than good.

“While there is no doubt that the current child welfare system has flaws, we can find little empirical data supporting the scathing critiques of mandated reporting laws and CPS,” say Drake and Jonson-Reid, professors of social work at Washington University in St. Louis.

“We now have enough empirical evidence to scientifically evaluate many longstanding criticisms of CPS, and many of those criticisms appear to be without basis in reality.”

CPS exist in every state and are responsible for responding to and dealing with reports of child maltreatment. These agencies handle investigations and provide services such as providing foster care and finding adoptive homes for children.

Drake and Jonson-Reid reviewed national-level empirical data such as the Department of Health and Human Services Child Maltreatment 2003 report and the American Humane Association’s National Analysis of Official Child Abuse Neglect Reporting: 1977. The researchers used such information from the last three decades to examine the following criticisms:

Conventional Wisdom: CPS is overwhelmed by investigative functions.

What the data show: “Given funding allocations and reports from workers of how they spend their time, it would appear impossible that CPS agencies are using over 20% of their resources on screening, intake, and investigative functions,” respond Drake and Jonson-Reid.

“If required, the most defensible estimate of agency resources devoted to intake and investigations would be in the 5-10% range. The available data suggest that CPS agencies invest a small portion of their workers’ time in investigative functions compared to other functions, particularly the administration of foster care.”

Conventional Wisdom: CPS is unable to provide services beyond the initial investigation.

What the data show: “The data here are unambiguous,” says Drake and Jonson-Reid. “Several federal reports clearly show frequent post-investigation services to help children and their families. It is a core area of agency functioning.”

Conventional Wisdom: Clients and professional care providers view CPS in a negative light and see CPS’ services as being intrusive and ineffective. The mandated reporting system is seen by some psychotherapists as an unreasonable burden.

What the data show: The researchers note that a variety of studies have found that about two-thirds to three-quarters of CPS clients are satisfied with the investigation process and services received.

“From the client’s perspective, the common and much-repeated assertion that CPS is viewed negatively and is harmful to most families, is simply wrong,” say Drake and Jonson-Reid, who are both members of the Center for Mental Health Services Research at WUSTL’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

“Similarly, we found that mental health service providers do not generally see CPS interventions in a negative light. Studies do indicate that in some cases treatment disruption occurs, but professionals also endorse mandated reporting laws, and report that filing child maltreatment reports does more good than harm to the therapeutic process.”

Overall, Drake and Jonson-Reid’s work suggests that many concerns about the current mandated reporting system are unfounded, and that there appears to be no evidence suggesting that current reporting requirements be abandoned.

Drake and Jonson-Reid’s analysis is part of an article titled “A Response to Melton Based on the Best Available Data,” published in the current issue of the international journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

Editor’s note: Professors Drake and Jonson-Reid are available for live or taped interviews using Washington University’s free VYVX or ISDN lines.