Barriers to physician identification and reporting of child abuse

Pediatr Ann. 2005 May;34(5):349-56. doi: 10.3928/0090-4481-20050501-08.


Physicians systematically underidentify and underreport cases of child abuse. These medical errors may result in continued abuse, leading to potentially severe consequences. We have reviewed a number of studies that attempt to explain the reasons for these errors. The findings of these various studies suggest several priorities for improving the identification and reporting of child maltreatment: Improve continuing education about child maltreatment. Continuing education should focus not only on the identification of maltreatment but also on management and outcomes. This education should include an explanation of the role of CPS investigator and the physician's role in an investigation. The education should provide physicians with a better understanding of the overall outcome for children reported to CPS to help physicians gain perspective on the small number of maltreated children they may care for in their practice. This education should emphasize that the majority of maltreated children will benefit from CPS involvement. New York is the only state that mandates all physicians, as well as certain other professionals, take a 2-hour course called Identification and Reporting of Child Abuse and Maltreatment prior to licensing. Cited studies in this article suggest that such a mandate might be expected to improve identification and reporting, thereby encouraging other states to adopt similar regulations. Give physicians the opportunity to debrief with a trained professional after detecting and reporting child abuse. The concept of child abuse and the gravity of the decision to report can be troubling to the reporter. The debriefing could include discussions of uncomfortable feelings physicians may experience related to their own countertransference reactions. Provide resources to assist physicians in making the difficult determination of suspected maltreatment. The role of accessible telephone consultation should be evaluated, along with formalized collaborations with local Emergency Departments with pediatric expertise. Improve the relationship between CPS and medical providers. For example, CPS workers should systematically inform the reporting physician about the progress of their investigation and the outcome for the child and family. Several past reports have made specific suggestions to improve the working relationship. Warner and Hanson recommended that positive outcomes be programmed into the reporting process. They suggested that CPS have special phone lines staffed by well-trained employees for mandated reporters to call. Finkelhor and Zellman proposed a more radical change to improve the working relationship between CPS and mandated reporters. They suggested that certain professionals, with demonstrated expertise in the recognition and treatment of child abuse and registered as such, should have "flexible reporting options." Options include the ability to defer reporting, if there are no immediate threats to a child, or to make a report in confidence and defer the investigation until necessary. Finkelhor and Zellman emphasized that this model would improve physician-reporting compliance and enhance the role of CPS while reducing the work burden for CPS. Improve interaction with the legal system. Child abuse pediatric experts who have courtroom experience could provide education and support to physicians who have little preexisting experience with the legal system. Reimbursement for time spent supporting legal proceedings should be equitable and may reduce physician concerns about lost patient revenue. Retrospective studies and vignette analyses provide much information about some of the barriers to child maltreatment reporting and describe many of the reasons why physicians do not identify and report all child maltreatment. Future prospective examinations of physician decision-making may further explain the physician's decision-making process and the barriers he or she faces when identifying and reporting child abuse.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Abuse / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Mandatory Reporting*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • United States