Last updated June 17, 2015
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NASW Law Note

Social Workers and Child Abuse Reporting

A Review of State Mandatory Reporting Requirements

Social workers may find themselves torn between their commitment to their clients' interests and their responsibility to the larger society when faced with the possibility of reporting child abuse to authorities.1 “Since the 1960’s social workers throughout the United States have been required to disclose confidential information, sometimes against a client’s wishes, to comply with mandatory reporting laws on child and elder abuse and neglect.”2 Social workers were initially concerned about the requirements’ effects on their relation- ships with clients; however, “social workers now recognize the public’s compel- ling interest in this social policy.”3

For social workers, the reporting of child abuse represents far more than an ethical dilemma. Mandatory reporting laws not only require social workers to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, but also there can be varying levels of civil and criminal liability for failing to do so. For example, a social worker at a family services agency failed to report an incident of child abuse he witnessed during a counseling session to “preserve the therapeutic relationship.”4 The parent involved later killed his child, and the social worker was charged with a criminal offense for his failure to comply with the state’s mandatory reporting law. The level of attention given to these issues by federal and state governments emphasizes the importance society places on the need for intervention on behalf of children victimized by abuse.

As captured in federally collected data for the reporting year 2010, an estimated 695,000 children were the victims of maltreatment.5 Among these children, those in the age group of birth to one year were the most frequently victimized. Girls were more frequently harmed—51.2 percent versus 48.5 percent for boys—and neglect was the most reported violation at more than 75 percent of the reports.6 However, more than 15 percent of the victims suffered physical abuse, and another 9 percent suffered sexual abuse.7 Tragically, during the reporting period, approximately 1,560 children died due to neglect and abuse,8 and most of these children—nearly 80 percent—were younger than four years old. Of the fatalities, boys had a higher rate.9 Because of mandatory reporting requirements, three-fifths of all reports of child abuse came from professionals—including medical personnel; law enforcement; educators; lawyers; and social service workers, including professional social workers. “The three largest percentages of FY 2010 reports were from . . . educational personnel (16.4%), law enforcement and legal personnel (16.7%), and social services staff (11.5%).”10

This law note discusses the legal issues social workers confront when dealing with child abuse and neglect situations. First, this note provides a brief history of the federal legislation that established mandated federal standards for CPS and the reporting of suspected child abuse. Second, this note surveys state statutes and case law, providing an overview of the current state of mandatory reporting laws (Appendix A summarizes each state’s reporting requirements). Third, it identifies the various ethical considerations social workers face in meeting their reporting obligations. Fourth, it discusses emerging issues related to child abuse reporting that may be complex and require further analysis. Finally, it provides practical steps for reporting child abuse.

Please note that federal and state laws and court interpretations continue to develop and change. As a result, legal advice must be tailored to the specific facts and circumstances of a particular case. This note is designed to provide you with a general overview of many of the issues presented in cases of child abuse and neglect. However, nothing reported herein should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel. If you have any questions or concerns applicable to a specific situation, please seek legal advice.


1. Frederik Reamer, Ethical Standards in Social Work 24 (2nd Ed. 2006); see also Seth C. Kalichman, Mandated Reporting of Suspected Child Abuse, Ethics, Law & Policy 52 (1993).

2. Frederik Reamer, Ethical Standards in Social Work 24 (2nd Ed. 2006).

3. Id.

4. Id. at 119.

5. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Servs., Admin. for Children & Families, Admin. on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau, Child Maltreatment 2010, 22–24 (2011), available at http://www.acf.hhs. gov/programs/cb/stats_research/index.htm#can.

6. Id.

7. Id.

8. Id. at 58–59.

9. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Servs., Admin. for Children & Families, Admin. on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau, Child Maltreatment 2010, 24–26 (2010), available at http://www.acf.hhs. gov/programs/cb/stats_research/index.htm#can.

10. Id.