Child Abuse & Mandatory Reporting: A Complex Matter

Domestic violence is a complex dynamic in families that requires unique and additional considerations when deciding whether a child abuse report is needed. Filing child abuse reports often has impacts that the reporters do not see. Mitigating unnecessary harm to families and preserving the provider’s role as an authentic source of help is as important as the mandate to report.

Futures Without Violence’s new resource “Domestic Violence and Child Reports: A Complex Matter” is intended to help child-Thumbnail of Futures Without Violence resource Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Reports: A Complex Matterserving programs reduce harm that may be caused by filing a report when domestic violence is a concern, while also paying close attention to the safety of children and adults. 

This is not a checklist but instead is intended to guide your professional judgement about whether a child abuse report needs to be filed and how to support families. We encourage you to consult with your state’s domestic violence coalition and understand local, state, territory and tribal laws

When to Report

Deciphering how exposure to domestic violence or witnessing violence constitutes neglect is often a grey area. Many child-serving program administrators and staff are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the appropriate child protection agency.  However, the presence of domestic violence does not necessarily mean a child abuse and neglect report is automatically warranted.  It is important to carefully consider what supports would be or are helpful to a family and when or if a child abuse report is warranted at all.  

The questions below can help programs gain a deeper understanding of the nature of domestic violence in the home and its impact on adults and children.  These questions can also help you think about services and safety planning that may help the family.

  • Has the child been injured as a result of the violence toward the survivor?
  • Does the abusive partner allow the survivor to meet their children’s needs?
  • Have there been threats to harm the children?
  • Have there been threats to kill the children?
  • Have there been threats to kidnap the children?
  • If there are survivor mental health or substance abuse concerns co-occurring with the violence, do they have a negative impact on the child’s physical, emotional, and/or social well-being?
  • Is the child’s development affected by the violence?
  • Has the child expressed fear that their parent or caregiver could be seriously harmed or that the child might be harmed?
  • Has the abusive partner used a weapon on the family or threatened to?
  • Has the abusive partner harmed a family pet?
  • Has the abusive partner lost their job recently? 
  • Has the abusive partner threatened suicide recently? 

Race, Class and Gender Bias in Mandated Reporting

American Indian, Alaska Native, and Black low-income mothers are disproportionately affected at every decision point in the child welfare system, from mandated reporting to the termination of parental rights. This overrepresentation has grave impacts, such as decreased help-seeking for survivors of domestic violence, increased family separation, and increased involvement of child survivors in the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems. In short, child welfare involvement greatly increases a child’s risk of entry into other punitive carceral systems and leaves many mothers without real safety and healing

Child-serving programs should be sure to include steps for preventing and addressing bias in their program reporting policies and procedures as part of program readiness. Ideas for consideration include:

  • Provide staff training on explicit and implicit race, class, and gender bias;
  • Ensure more than one person is making a decision about when and if to file a child abuse report;
  • Ensure people or teams that oversee mandated reporting requirements are asking reflective questions every time a report is suggested, such as: How does my own worldview impact my understanding of the family’s reality? “Would this be a concern if the family was white and affluent?” “If the father was standing before me, would I be quick to think he was neglectful?”
  • Review your policies to examine bias. For example, does your program report every case of domestic violence to child welfare without thinking about impacts on women of color and their communities?

Get Help for Yourself

Deciding to file a child abuse report is emotionally taxing, and at times it can lead to conflicting feelings. It’s important to get support for yourself too. If you are ever in doubt of how to handle safety concerns, talk to your supervisor and/or contact the following hotlines for assistance.