Research Watch: Is This Child Abuse or Neglect? Should I Report it?

Diana Zuckerman
July 1, 2001

Social workers, teachers, psychologists, police and many others who work with youth are “mandated” reporters, who in most states are required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect to child protective services. In some states, such as Maryland, all citizens are expected to report suspected abuse or neglect. But “suspecting” abuse or neglect is subjective. If a child is physically beaten and left with bruises for getting bad grades, that is clearly worthy of a report, but many cases are not so clear. This article reviews research done on reporting suspected child abuse and offers guidance to professionals working with youth to help them determine what to do, especially when cultural differences in child-rearing make it hard to know whether punishment should be considered abuse.

The authors start with the assumption that all children should have the opportunity to be raised in an environment free from physical, sexual and emotional abuse or neglect, regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity or religious beliefs. However, there are parenting practices that are viewed as acceptable by some cultures, and unacceptable by others. That puts many youth workers in an uncomfortable situation.

Which youth workers are most likely to report child abuse and neglect? The authors’ review of the research found that professional training may be more important than knowledge. For example, social workers are more likely to report than physicians, regardless of their actual knowledge of child maltreatment. An individual’s demographic background, such as gender, marital status and parenthood, do not seem to influence whether or not he or she reports suspected abuse or neglect. Research also indicates that there are logical reasons that some suspected abuse is more likely to be reported: If a case is seen as more serious, and the evidence is stronger, adults are more likely to report. In addition, they are more likely to report incidents involving young children, or to report if they think reporting might actually do some good.

The authors then consider guidelines for clinicians, which they acknowledge raise more questions than they answer. Although there are no final answers here, this article (and others in this special issue on “Cultural Issues in Child Maltreatment”) provides some insight into the difficult questions youth workers face in deciding whether their concerns are sufficient to warrant a report to child protective services.


Zuckerman, Diana. "Is This Child Abuse or Neglect? Should I Report it?" Research Watch review of "A Reporting and Response Model for Culture and Child Maltreatment".Youth Today, July/August 2001, p. 10.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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