Why child abuse commission got stuck

Mossaides cites ‘structural racism, ablism, and classism’

IN A VERY rare occurrence in state government, a special commission appointed by the Legislature spent 16 months investigating how child abuse should be reported and couldn’t come to agreement on any recommendations.

The impasse was first reported by CommonWealth on Monday, but a 93-page report issued by the commission on Wednesday sheds light on why no consensus could be reached. The report highlights the complexity of the subject and how difficult it is to strike the right balance in ensuring abuse is reported without ensnaring families – often poor families of color – in needless investigations prompted in some instances by racial bias.

Child advocate Maria Mossaides, who chaired the commission and declined comment on Monday, lays out in a preamble to the report the challenges she and her colleagues faced.  “Commission members have understood that the topic requires careful weighing of many factors: the imperative to protect children from abuse and neglect whenever possible, the value of the integrity of the family unit, the trauma that can accompany child protective services involvement, the trauma that can come when child protective services does not become involved, the sometimes illusive line between a circumstance when a child is in need of resources and a circumstance when a child is in need of protection, the possibility that fear of state involvement will prevent families from accessing resources, and the reality that even mandated reporters will not always recognize the signs of distress when they see them.”

Because of the impasse, the commission did not take any votes. Rather than submitting recommendations to the Legislature for how to update the law, the report instead provided a summary of the commission’s deliberations and public comment.

An initial proposal that the commission drafted to expand the mandated reporting system – with new people classified as mandated reporters and new definitions of when to report – was widely panned by advocates who worried that it would increase racial disparities in a system that already disproportionately affects Black and Latinx families. After holding a public comment period and hearing from critics, the commission was unable to agree on whether to proceed with its recommendations.

Mossaides wrote that the commission had “a deep concern that a system that relies on individual judgment determinations is inextricably tied to individual biases and structural racism, ablism [discrimination in favor of able-bodied people], and classism.”

The report provides insight into the debates that made reaching consensus so difficult.

On a broad scale, the commission wrote in the report’s introduction that it turned out to be impossible to consider mandated reporter laws without looking at the entire child protective system. “Serious questions have been raised by Commission members and in public comments the Commission has received about the efficacy of the child protective system and the complexity of state involvement in children’s lives,” the report writes.

People raised concerns that children who are removed from their parents may face more harm in foster care than they would at home. It can be hard to disentangle the trauma of abuse and neglect from the trauma of involvement with child protective services.

Questions were raised about racism, implicit bias, and the ways in which child welfare workers are influenced by poverty, race, and cultures and traditions that are outside the “norm.”

The report notes that if mandated reporters – like teachers or social service providers – think child protective services will not improve a situation, they may be hesitant to report, since reporting could rupture the trust the person has with a family. Public commenters noted that many individuals are reluctant to seek needed help from community services, out of concern that it might trigger a DCF report.

The commission heard from those who support abolishing the mandated reporter system and those who suggested that the system is meant to deal with child abuse, not the more frequently reported cases of poverty-related neglect. Some voiced support for more community-based services.

Some commission members worried about expanding racial disproportionality, while others wanted more clarity about how to balance concerns about under-reporting with concerns about over-reporting. Many felt the imperfections and biases in the mandated reporting system do not outweigh the critical need to protect the safety of children. The report said commissioners generally agreed that mandated reporter requirements are an important part of the child welfare system, so discussions focused on finding ways “to make it more accurate, fair, and efficient.” But the commission heard “varying viewpoints that paint starkly different pictures of mandated reporting as well as child protective services.” There was little qualitative data on which to make decisions.

The report writes that its discussion “reflects an attempt to balance the need to update and clarify the mandated reporter system with the dangers of expanding a system that relies on fallible individuals for their judgment.”

Rep. Michael Finn, a West Springfield Democrat who co-chairs the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said in an interview before the report was released that even though there were no formal recommendations, lawmakers will review the report and may still pull out some proposals and attempt to update the law. “Obviously you have to get the whole Legislature to agree, but I think there will be areas that we can pull from that report where the Legislature might feel as though we can implement some changes,” Finn said.

The report presents numerous areas for consideration. It looks at what new classifications of people could be added to the mandated reporter law – like volunteers, contractors, school bus drivers, mentors, or various medical professionals – and why there is debate over whether to add them. It acknowledges that some categories of people initially considered for inclusion – like nannies and computer technicians – were overbroad and probably should not be included. It flags areas where the laws is unclear, like whether a teenager can be a mandated reporter or whether the law applies to an out-of-state teacher working with a child remotely. The report indicates that there was strong consensus that better training is needed for mandated reporters.

But the report also makes clear how far apart commission members were on many issues. The commission could not agree on whether to expand the definition of when someone is required to report. Current law requires reporting when someone believes a child is suffering physical or emotional injury, but some suggested changing that to where someone believes a child is at risk of suffering injury. Commission members disagreed about what level of risk should trigger a report, and some worried this shift would result in too many unnecessary filings. There was disagreement about whether the law needs to better define abuse and neglect, and what those definitions should be. The commission heard concerns from the public about proposals to raise the financial penalties for reporters, which some suggested would create a “culture of fear” and increase frivolous reports.

There was also significant discussion about racial disproportionality, since Black and Hispanic children are brought to the attention of DCF at rates higher than White children. Commissioners noted that there is not enough data to dive into the reasons behind the disproportionality or to understand the relationship between poverty, neglect, and race. There was some discussion – but no conclusions – on how to collect better data and whether to institute some form of race-blind screening process at DCF.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The 12-member mandated reporter commission was established by legislation and made up primarily of state agency appointees – leaving some critics unhappy that it did not include anyone with lived experience with DCF.

In a statement issued after the report was released, Mossaides acknowledged the critique. “We recognize that no commission or group of representatives can encompass the full scope of experiences with the complex issue of mandated reporting, and the OCA is wary of oversimplifying these topics by suggesting that some voices can speak for many voices,” she said. But she added that she believes nonetheless that the work of the committee “has added significant value to this topic.”