Obviously, we should do everything possible to prevent child abuse. But a lot of things that seem like good ideas on the surface, such as revising child-abuse-reporting laws, end up hurting the very kids we are trying to save.
Last year, mandatory-reporting laws led to more than 3 million child-abuse "reports" in the United States. Yet child-welfare agencies managed only to substantiate with evidence fewer than one-third of these cases.
Florida is a case in point. In 1999, the Florida legislature passed the Kayla McKean Child Protection Act. The law was supposed to prevent child-abuse deaths by strengthening the ways in which suspicions of child abuse are reported and investigated.
A 2001 report by the Florida Child Abuse Death Review committee, covering the two years since the law passed, shows that children are dying from abuse in even greater numbers than before. The report says that 30 Florida children died of abuse in 1999, and 30 more died in 2000. This despite the fact that Florida has taken about 3,000 additional children into foster care since 1998.
By extending the reporting laws, we end up overwhelming workers with reports and accusations. And less and less time is actually spent identifying and saving the children in real danger.
Rather than extend mandatory-reporting laws, lawmakers should actually narrow the definition of child abuse and neglect. A narrowing of the definition would focus all of the attention and resources on the children in the most danger.
In addition to clarifying the definition, child abuse must be criminalized. Perpetrators need to be prosecuted and punished for behavior that if committed against anyone other than a child would result in assault charges. The current system constantly removes children from their homes and places them with relatives or in foster care, but nothing happens to the abuser — except in very severe cases.
Mandatory-reporting laws increase child-abuse "reports," but they do little to increase conviction rates for child abusers or, more importantly, actually prevent child abuse. Children deserve real reform. Tightening the definition of child abuse and neglect, and criminalizing child abuse would help kids and save lives.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.