A Call for Shared Humanity Means Repealing Mandatory Reporting Laws

In her  recent message  addressing the celebration of May as National Foster Care Awareness Month, Associate Commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau Aysha E. Schomburg focused on the idea of “Ubuntu.” As she explained, “Ubuntu” is a South African word that can be translated from Zulu to mean “humanity to others” or “I am because we are,” and embodies the core values of “communality, respect, dignity, acceptance, sharing, co-responsibility, humanness, fairness, compassion, and love.” The Associate Commissioner emphasized, “Ubuntu represents what all families and children need—a strong foundation, familial closeness and togetherness, and community.” She called on all of us to ask ourselves, “How can we foster Ubuntu to support parents, resource parents, kin caregivers, and young adults?” 

For years, families have made abundantly clear the continuum of supports they need to thrive. Despite this, since the inception of the modern child welfare system, much of our collective efforts to “protect” children have not focused on Ubuntu, but instead have perpetuated a culture of surveillance, separation, and subjugation, especially in Black, Indigenous, and Latine communities,1 through mandates to report alleged child abuse or neglect to hotlines.  As aptly noted by the upEND Movement, “This surveillance is indicative of the system’s antagonistic relationship with communities and is informed by a long history of criminalizing certain communities, especially poor Black and Native communities.”  It is for this reason that child welfare systems are more appropriately referred to as family regulation or family policing systems.

Mandatory reporting laws require that professionals like teachers, doctors, therapists, child care providers, law enforcement officers, and other state workers report their suspicions, regardless of the amount of detail they know about a situation, and irrespective of whether they have received training to understand the gravity of a hotline report. Eighteen states have “universal mandatory reporting,” meaning all residents are required to report suspected instances of abuse or neglect to the hotline. Mandated reporting leads to a significant percentage of unsubstantiated reports, which overwhelm systems and contribute to millions of unnecessary invasions into families’ lives. More than one-third of children in the U.S.—over half of all Black children—will be subject to a CPS investigation by the time they reach the age of 18.

Though reporting mandates have been the primary intervention purported to keep children safe over the past 50 years, evidence has never shown that they support children’s welfare or prevent child abuse. The temporary shutdown of schools, and then of courts, during the early COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the reality that reduced surveillance has no negative impact on child safety. With less exposure to mandatory reporters, the number of children placed in foster care in New York City dropped by half, with no corresponding increase in hospitalizations, substantiated abuse, or any other risk metric. In the same time period, COVID-19 stimulus payments and growing mutual aid networks helped strengthen communities while more families remained safely together.

The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), passed nearly 50 years ago, requires states to have child abuse and neglect reporting processes with mandatory reporters in order to receive federal funding. This requirement creates a cascade of incentives for families to be investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) at high rates, and forces many professionals, including social workers, to surveil parents’ behavior and report suspicions at the risk of fines, job loss, or even criminal charges. For example, some states impose a requirement that the child protective agency file a complaint with a professional’s licensing authority if there is reason to suspect that a practitioner, law enforcement officer, or educator has failed to report child abuse. Such requirements lead to anxiety, risk aversion, and a culture of suspicion on the part of reporters, turning “allies [in]to adversaries.”

Mandated reporters are omnipresent in every formal support system on which low-income families rely to meet basic needs. Due to America’s long history of racism and white supremacy, these families are disproportionately likely to be Black, Indigenous, and Latine. Though reporters may call the hotline with the goal of trying to get families help, the harrowing process of investigation, and the possibility of children being forcibly taken from their homes, sometimes permanently, causes unimaginable pain to families. Even in cases where children are not removed from their parents’ care, traumatic inspections of their homes and bodies shatter their sense of Ubuntu, knowing the cause of this harm originated from someone they might otherwise have seen as a member of their support system. Many reporters do not know that family regulation systems are not set up to provide the types of services and supports that families need most. In fact, mandating reporting diverts essential resources from community-based services that could be deployed to support families and communities.

Mandatory reporting laws create a sense of social isolation that place children and families at greater risk of harm. Due to fear of being reported, families may choose not to seek support from any public agencies, and distrust their neighbors and community members who might otherwise be able to provide assistance. One mother testified during a public hearing before the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission in 2021, “Who am I supposed to speak to when I am dealing with a situation… if I don’t have nobody to turn to and be able to feel safe that my kids are not going to be removed from me… I am in fear of speaking because DCF has the upper hand… they’re going to listen to that person [reporting on me] and have my kids removed from me.”

What is needed now are policies that allow for increased cash assistance and the development of community supports that ensure all families have access to food, health care, education, counseling, and employment support in their own neighborhoods; quality and affordable housing; substance use treatment programs that do not punish parents for relapse; accessible and culturally responsive mental health care; affordable and enriching day care and after school programs for children; and accessible and high quality legal representation for families facing child abuse allegations, evictions, immigration-related hearings, or other court involvement. Community supports and services should be developed by those that would benefit most from them, “build[ing] on a neighborhood’s specific assets and identities.

Parenting is an inherently stressful task that can only be eased by a sense of connectedness, trust, and community support. It’s time to cast aside ideologies that criminalize and punish families, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, and Latine. It’s time to invest in families and listen to parents. It’s time to allow communities, free from state surveillance, to focus on getting families what they need to raise children successfully. As Schomburg called on us to do, it’s time to embody the philosophy of Ubuntu: honor families’ humanity and connectedness to their communities. We believe an important place to start is by repealing mandatory reporting laws.

[1] In this blog post, we are using the term Latine to refer to all people who identify has Hispanic. While the terms Latino and Latina refer to male and female individuals, Latine honors those with non-binary gender identities. Some prefer “Latinx” as a gender-neutral identifier, though the term is up for debate. Latine/a/o/x includes individuals from non-majority Spanish-speaking countries and thus has wider application than the term “Hispanic.”