Law & Medicine

Mandatory reporting laws


Question: You are moonlighting in the emergency department and have just finished treating a 5-year-old boy with an apparent Colles’ fracture, who was accompanied by his mother with bruises on her face. Her exam revealed additional bruises over her abdominal wall. The mother said they accidentally tripped and fell down the stairs, and spontaneously denied any acts of violence in the family.

Given this scenario, which of the following is best?

A. You suspect both child and spousal abuse, but lack sufficient evidence to report the incident.

B. Failure to report based on reasonable suspicion alone may amount to a criminal offense punishable by possible imprisonment.

C. You may face a potential malpractice lawsuit if subsequent injuries caused by abuse could have been prevented had you reported.

D. Mandatory reporting laws apply not only to abuse of children and spouses, but also of the elderly and other vulnerable adults.

E. All are correct except A.

Answer: E. All doctors, especially those working in emergency departments, treat injuries on a regular basis. Accidents probably account for the majority of these injuries, but the most pernicious are those caused by willful abuse or neglect. Such conduct, believed to be widespread and underrecognized, victimizes children, women, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups.

Dr. S.Y. Tan, emeritus professor of medicine and former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Mandatory reporting laws arose from the need to identify and prevent these activities that cause serious harm and loss of lives. Physicians and other health care workers are in a prime position to diagnose or raise the suspicion of abuse and neglect. This article focuses on laws that mandate physician reporting of such behavior. Not addressed are other reportable situations such as certain infectious diseases, gunshot wounds, threats to third parties, and so on.

Child abuse

The best-known example of a mandatory reporting law relates to child abuse, which is broadly defined as when a parent or caretaker emotionally, physically, or sexually abuses, neglects, or abandons a child. Child abuse laws are intended to protect children from serious harm without abridging parental discipline of their children.

Cases of child abuse are pervasive; four or five children are tragically killed by abuse or neglect every day, and each year, some 6 million children are reported as victims of child abuse. Henry Kempe’s studies on the “battered child syndrome” in 1962 served to underscore the physician’s role in exposing child maltreatment, and 1973 saw the enactment of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which set standards for mandatory reporting as a condition for federal funding.

All U.S. states have statutes identifying persons who are required to report suspected child maltreatment to an appropriate agency, such as child protective services. Reasonable suspicion, without need for proof, is sufficient to trigger the mandatory reporting duty. A summary of the general reporting requirements, as well as each state’s key statutory features, are available at Child Welfare Information Gateway.1

Bruises, fractures, and burns are recurring examples of injuries resulting from child abuse, but there are many others, including severe emotional harm, which is an important consequence. Clues to abuse include a child’s fearful and anxious demeanor, wearing clothes to hide injuries, and inappropriate sexual conduct.2 The perpetrators and/or complicit parties typically blame an innocent home accident for the victim’s injuries to mislead the health care provider.


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