Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect
Last updated July 2013
This sheet examines legal provisions requiring specified people to report suspected abuse and neglect to government child protection services in Australia.1
This document is provided as a guide only. Individuals are encouraged to contact the relevant department or organisation to clarify requirements in their states or territories, or in relation to legislation. For more information, see Reporting Abuse and Neglect: State and Territory Departments Responsible for Protecting Children.
Mandatory reporting is a term used to describe the legislative requirement imposed on selected classes of people to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect to government authorities. Parliaments in all Australian states and territories have enacted mandatory reporting laws of some description. However, the laws are not the same across all jurisdictions. The main differences concern who has to report, and what types of abuse and neglect have to be reported. There are also other differences, such as the state of mind that activates the reporting duty (i.e., having a concern, suspicion or belief on reasonable grounds - see Table 1) and the destination of the report.
This sheet focuses on the major differences features of state and territory laws regarding who must report and what must be reported.
|Jurisdiction||State of mind||Extent of harm|
|ACT||Belief on reasonable grounds||Not specified: "sexual abuse ... or non-accidental physical injury"|
|NSW||Suspects on reasonable grounds that a child is at risk of significant harm||A child or young person "is at risk of significant harm if current concerns exist for the safety, welfare or wellbeing of the child or young person because of the presence, to a significant extent, of ... basic physical or psychological needs are not being met ... physical or sexual abuse or ill-treatment ... serious psychological harm"|
|NT||Belief on reasonable grounds||Any significant detrimental effect caused by any act, omission or circumstance on the physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing or development of the child|
|QLD||Becomes aware, or reasonably suspects||Significant detrimental effect on the child's physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing|
|SA||Suspects on reasonable grounds||Any sexual abuse; physical or psychological abuse or neglect to extent that the child "has suffered, or is likely to suffer, physical or psychological injury detrimental to the child's wellbeing; or the child's physical or psychological development is in jeopardy"|
|TAS||Believes, or suspects, on reasonable grounds, or knows||Any sexual abuse; physical or emotional injury or other abuse, or neglect, to extent that the child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, physical or psychological harm detrimental to the child's wellbeing; or the child's physical or psychological development is in jeopardy|
|VIC||Belief on reasonable grounds||Child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm as a result of physical injury or sexual abuse and the child's parents have not protected, or are unlikely to protect, the child from harm of that type|
|WA||Belief on reasonable grounds||Not specified: any sexual abuse|
|Australia||Suspects on reasonable grounds||Not specified: any assault or sexual assault; serious psychological harm; serious neglect|
Adapted from relevant state and territory legislation.
The legislation generally contains lists of particular occupations that are mandated to report. The groups of people mandated to notify cases of suspected child abuse and neglect range from persons in a limited number of occupations (e.g., Qld), to a more extensive list (Vic.), to a very extensive list (ACT, NSW, SA, Tas.), through to every adult (NT). The occupations most commonly named as mandated reporters are those who deal frequently with children in the course of their work: teachers, doctors, nurses, and police.
In addition to differences describing who is a mandated reporter across jurisdictions, there are differences in the types of abuse and neglect which must be reported. In some jurisdictions it is mandatory to report suspicions of each of the four classical types of abuse and neglect abuse (i.e., physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect). In other jurisdictions it is mandatory to report only some of the abuse types (e.g., Vic., WA). Some jurisdictions also require reports of exposure of children to domestic violence.
It is important to note that the legislation generally specifies that except for sexual abuse (where all suspicions must be reported), it is only cases of significant abuse and neglect that must be reported. Reflecting the original intention of the laws, the duty does not apply to any and all "abuse" or "neglect", but only to cases which are of sufficiently significant harm to the child's health or wellbeing to warrant intervention or service provision. However, reflecting the qualitative differences presented by sexual abuse as opposed to other forms of abuse and neglect, five jurisdictions apply the reporting duty to all suspected cases of sexual abuse without requiring the reporter to exercise any discretion about the extent of harm which may have been caused or which may be likely (ACT, NT, SA, Tas., WA).
In the other three jurisdictions, the practical application of the duty to report sexual abuse would still result in reports of all suspected sexual abuse being required, as sexual abuse should always create a suspicion of significant harm. Suspicions of more minor child abuse and neglect may be referred to child and family welfare agencies, especially where jurisdictions have made more extensive provision for this (e.g., Vic., NSW, Tas.). It is also important to note that the duty to report also applies to suspicions that significant abuse or neglect is likely to occur in future, not only suspected cases of significant abuse or neglect that have already happened.Table 2 provides an overview of the key features of the legislation in each state and territory: who must report, and what must be reported.
In addition to state and territory laws, the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) creates a mandatory reporting duty for personnel from the Family Court of Australia, the Federal Magistrates Court and the Family Court of Western Australia. This includes registrars, family counsellors, family dispute resolution practitioners or arbitrators, and lawyers independently representing children's interests. Section 67ZA states that when in the course of performing duties or functions, or exercising powers, these court personnel have reasonable grounds for suspecting that a child has been abused, or is at risk of being abused, the person must, as soon as practicable, notify a prescribed child welfare authority of his or her suspicion and the basis for the suspicion.
In all jurisdictions, the legislation protects the reporter's identity from disclosure. In addition, the legislation provides that as long as the report is made in good faith, the reporter cannot be liable in any civil, criminal or administrative proceeding.
Legislation in all jurisdictions except New South Wales requires mandatory reporting in relation to all young people up to the age of 18 (whether they use the terms "children" or "children and young people"). In New South Wales, the legislative grounds for intervention cover young people up to 18 years of age, but it is not mandatory to report suspicions of risk of harm in relation to young people aged 16 and 17.
Mandatory reporting laws specify those conditions under which an individual is legally required to make a report to the relevant government agency in their jurisdiction. This does not preclude an individual from making a report to the statutory child protection service if they have concerns for the safety and wellbeing of a child that do not fall within mandatory reporting requirements. All statutes enable people to report concerns for a child's welfare even if they do not compel such reports. Any voluntary non-mandated reports will receive the legal protections referred to above regarding confidentiality and immunity from legal liability.
Although particular professional groups (such as psychologists) or government agencies (such as education departments in some states) may have protocols outlining the moral, ethical or professional responsibility or indeed the organisational requirement to report, they may not be officially mandated under their jurisdiction's child protection legislation. For example, in Queensland, teachers are required to report all forms of suspected significant abuse and neglect under school policy, but are only mandated to report sexual abuse under the legislation.
A common assumption is that mandatory reporting requirements, the legislative grounds for intervention, and research classifications of abusive and neglectful behaviour are the same. In fact, mandatory reporting laws define the types of situations that must be reported to statutory child protection services. Legislative grounds for government intervention define the circumstances and, importantly, the threshold at which the statutory child protection service is legally able to intervene to protect a child. Researchers typically focus on defining behaviours and circumstances that can be categorised as abuse and neglect. These differences arise because each description serves a different purpose; the lack of commonality does not mean that the system is failing to work as policy-makers had intended.
Mandatory reporting is a strategy which acknowledges the prevalence, seriousness and often hidden nature of child abuse and neglect, and enables early detection of cases which otherwise may not come to the attention of helping agencies. Mandatory reporting requirements reinforce the moral responsibility of community members to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. The laws help to create a culture which is more child-centred, and which will not tolerate serious abuse and neglect of vulnerable children. The introduction of mandatory reporting and accompanying training efforts aim to enable professionals to develop an awareness of cases of child abuse and create conditions which require them to report those cases and protect them as reporters. Research has found that mandated reporters make a substantial contribution to child protection and family welfare.
As the introduction of mandatory reporting requirements within a jurisdiction tends to increase reporters' and the community's awareness of child abuse and neglect, it can result in a substantial increase in the number of reports being made to child protection departments. If there are inadequate resources available to the responsible department to respond to the increased demand, then the increasing number of reports may result in services being overwhelmed with cases to investigate and lacking sufficient staffing to do so. It is important that mandated reporters receive training and accurate information to ensure they know what cases they have to report, and what cases they should not report. Since non-mandated reporters make a large proportion of all reports, it is also important for the public to be made aware of the appropriate extent of their responsibility. It is also essential that child and family support services be adequately resourced to respond to children and families in need of protection and assistance.
Further details and information about mandatory reporting can be obtained from the relevant statutory child protection authority in each jurisdiction. Contact and other details for each state and territory office can be found in Reporting Abuse and Neglect: State and Territory Departments Responsible for Protecting Children.
Cashmore, J. (2002). Mandatory reporting: Is it the culprit? Where is the evidence? Developing Practice: The Child, Youth and Family Work Journal, 4, 9-12.
Drake, B., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2007). A response to Melton based on the best available data. Child Abuse & Neglect, 31, 343-360
Kohl, P., Jonson-Reid. M,. & Drake, B. (2009). Time to leave substantiation behind: Findings from a national probability study. Child Maltreatment, 14(1), 17
Mathews, B. (2012). Exploring the contested role of mandatory reporting laws in the identification of severe child abuse and neglect. In M. Freeman (Ed.), Current legal issues (Vol. 14: Law and Childhood Studies) (pp. 302-338). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mathews, B., & Bross, D. (2008). Mandated reporting is still a policy with reason: Empirical evidence and philosophical grounds. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32(5), 511-51
Mathews, B., & Kenny, M. (2008). Mandatory Reporting legislation in the USA, Canada and Australia: A cross-jurisdictional review of key features, differences and issues. Child Maltreatment, 13, 50-63.
Melton, G. (2005). Mandated reporting: A policy without reason. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29, 9-18.Tomison, A. (2002). Mandatory reporting: A question of theory versus practice. Developing Practice: The Child, Youth and Family Work Journal, 4, 13-17.
This paper was authored by Ben Mathews, Associate Professor at QUT School of Law, and Deborah Scott, Research Fellow with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Previous editions of this paper have been compiled by Deborah Scott, Daryl Higgins, Leah Bromfield, Nick Richardson, Prue Holzer and Claire Berlyn.
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2013
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1 There may also be legal requirements for various professionals to report other child related conditions to various authorities (i.e., certain diseases, the occurrence of injuries in children attending schools or day care, and incidents of domestic violence related to adult victims). This sheet does not relate to those circumstances but is specific to the reporting of child abuse and neglect to child protection authorities.