Who Has a Duty to Report Child Abuse?

By Edward Tan, JD on April 30, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Child abuse has been thrust into the national consciousness after the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Now with the zaniness surrounding "Octomom" Nadya Suleman's latest child neglect fiasco, some may be wondering when the duty to report child abuse attaches.

From a moral perspective, the answer is "whenever you see it." But like with many things in the world, people don't always do what's right. Abuse can devastate a child's life. Studies have shown the damage inflicted can often reverberate throughout a victim's lifetime. Therefore, both the federal and all state governments have passed laws requiring reporting in some form. And many of these rules are broader than you may think.

Mandatory Reporters

Typically, child abuse reporting groups are broken into two categories: professionals and non-professionals.

Professionals generally include: social workers, school staff and teachers, law enforcement, doctors, and child care providers. That's not an exhaustive list as the definition of professional varies from state to state.

As of April 2010, 48 states and five U.S. territories require professionals to report actual and suspected child abuse. The only states that don't are New Jersey and Wyoming.

However, don't think you'll get off easy if you're in either of those places. Their state laws don't draw a distinction between professionals and non-professionals. Everyone must report child abuse.

Non-professionals are everyone else. Only 18 states, plus Puerto Rico, require all people who suspect child abuse to report it. In addition to the two above, these states are Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

Clergy members are the odd people out. Approximately 41 states and Puerto Rico require them to report cases of abuse. However, the extent to which they are required varies due to differences in how states' view clergy conversations as privileged.

What Must Be Reported

What counts as child abuse varies from state to state. But in general, abuse and neglect are considered the same under most state laws.

Knowing when you have a duty to report child abuse will keep you in line with the law. However, rules alone shouldn't keep you from doing the right thing.

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