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Experiences of school counsellors responsible for mandatory reporting
The aim of this review is to examine what is known about the experiences of school counsellors as ‘mandated reporters’. Mandatory reporting may be defined as ‘legislation which specifies who is required by law to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect’ (National Child Protection Clearing House, 2004; p.1). Statute law varies in different countries in terms of who is considered a ‘designated reporter’, but these often include professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers. Mandatory reporting is currently being debated in the United Kingdom, and it is therefore important to draw on the learning and experiences of professionals in other countries – such as Australia and the United States – in order to understand the issues that such professionals in the UK may face if such a law is adopted. Mandatory reporting legislation in the United States has resulted in a steady increase in the number of child abuse cases reported by mandatory reporters (Shireman, 2003). Since 1990, the rate of children receiving an investigation of child abuse has increased by 27.1 per cent (US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), 2005). Mandatory reporters have consistently accounted for a significant amount of reports placed with child protective services (CPS) and other law enforcement agencies charged with investigating these reports (USDHHS, 2005). With this in mind, this review examines the experiences of one particular professional group – school counsellors.
This literature review was undertaken utilising Discover on the University of Bedfordshire’s electronic library system. Using the advanced search feature, three search strings were developed to search for previous research on school counsellors’ experiences of mandatory reporting: “mandatory reporting” AND “school counsellor” AND experiences OR views. This provided 106 initial ‘hits’. I filtered by English language and peer reviewed journal articles. This reduced my number of hits to 21. Very few studies could be found which focussed specifically on school counsellor’s experiences, but a number were of relevance because they related more broadly to mental health professionals’ experiences of mandatory reporting. I read each of the 21 abstracts for relevance, and excluded studies if they were not related to mental health or educational professionals. Given the small number of studies identified, I also examined the reference lists of the key relevant articles from this search and identified further relevant studies. The online catalogue was also searched for relevant books, and current US policy on mandatory reporting was drawn on to set the context.
School Counsellors and Mental Health Professionals as Mandatory Reporters
Data on child abuse reporting behaviours of school counsellors are sparse as they are usually lumped into research samples with educator groups which also comprise teachers and administrators.
Since school counsellors are unique to the school setting, operating both as an educator and a mental health professional (MHP), it seems logical to also explore the literature on child abuse reporting
by MHPs because these results illuminate specific challenges inherent in the counselling relationship, such as confidentiality and the therapeutic bond. First, there is concern about damage to the therapeutic relationship. In a national survey, Zellman (1990) found that one in five clinicians admitted his/her reporting behaviour was influenced by a concern that such a report might disrupt therapeutic treatment. These concerns, however, may be unwarranted (Watson and Levine, 1989), since reporting a case of child abuse can have a positive effect on the therapeutic relationship and in some cases may strengthen the alliance (Levine and Doueck, 1995). Zellman’s (1990) article, however, provides little clear information about how their sample was recruited and therefore it is difficult to know how representative of professionals the findings are. A study of 198 psychologists by Beck and Ogloff (1995) found that the number one reason for failure to report was the belief that insufficient evidence existed. A strength of Beck and Ogloff’s (1995) study was their use of vignettes to examine the ways in which psychologists might make decisions to report in a variety of situations. Finally, MHPs, like educators, express a lack of confidence in CPS agencies. Finlayson and Koocher (1991), in a study of 269 paediatric psychologists, determined a major factor in child abuse reporting to be concerns about the ability of CPS to adequately intervene, while Beck and Ogloff (1995) established that lack of confidence in CPS was a major reason given for past non-reporting.
In a study of school counsellors and principals, Kenny and McEachern (2002) discovered that school counsellors made more child abuse reports over their entire careers compared to principals in their sample; however, the average number of reports per year for school counsellors was small (one report a year). Additionally, this study found school counsellors failed to report suspicions of abuse more often than principals in the sample, citing deterrents in reporting to be a perceived lack of physical evidence and uncertainty in the capabilities of CPS. With regard to perceptions of training, school counsellors in this study reported receiving more adequate training in child abuse reporting compared to the principals. Kenny and McEachern’s (2002) involved a large sample, but the response rate was quite low which means that their sample is likely to be skewed and biased, and therefore unrepresentative. Bryant and Milsom (2005) surveyed 263 school counsellors regarding child abuse reporting behaviours, barriers to reporting, knowledge of child abuse symptoms and legal responsibilities. Participants in this study averaged approximately five child abuse reports in the 12-month period surveyed, and researchers found differences in reporting by level, with
elementary school counsellors reporting significantly more child abuse compared to high school counsellors in the sample.
Working Relationship with CPS
An examination of the literature on child abuse reporting behaviours of educators, MHPs and school counsellors suggested a disconnection between mandatory reporters and the individuals to whom they give their reports (i.e. CPS) (Abrahams et al., 1992; Beck and Ogloff, 1995; Finkelhor and Zellman, 1991; Finlayson, 1990; Hackbarth and DeVaney, 1994; Hinson and Fossey, 2000; Levine and Doueck, 1995; Remley and Fry, 1993). For many, previous experiences of reporting child abuse resulted in complaints regarding CPS’ procedures for screening reports, as well as a failure to investigate (Crenshaw et al., 1995; O’Toole et al., 1999; Tite, 1993), their handling of cases after the investigation has occurred (Kenny, 2001; O’Toole et al., 1999; Tite, 1993; Zellman and Antler, 1990) and the lack of respect given to mandatory reporters when they make a call (Bryant and Milsom, 2005; Hinson and Fossey, 2000).
Mandatory Reporter Training and Knowledge of Child Abuse
Previous research has found differences in perceptions of ability to recognise child abuse as well as efficacy of mandatory reporter training for different professions within the field of education.
Romano (1990) established that administrators feel satisfied with the amount and quality of training for their staff. Conversely, Abrahams et al. (1992) found that the most significant obstacle to reporting, endorsed by 65 per cent of educators, was a lack of sufficient knowledge or training in the detection and reporting of child abuse. These two studies drew samples from very different regions of the United States however, and different mandatory laws exist. It is therefore not surprising that their findings are in conflict with one another, given that it is not possible to directly compare regions which have different laws. Crenshaw et al. (1995) found teachers more often perceived themselves to be poorly prepared, while school counsellors and school psychologists reported significantly higher confidence ratings. More recently in research conducted by Kenny (2001), many teachers, when presented with legally reportable case vignettes, indicated they would not report. Typically, school counsellors report higher self-efficacy both in terms of ability to recognise abuse as well as knowledge of laws and school policy when compared to educators in general. In Bryant and Milsom’s (2005) study of school counsellors, nearly three-quarters of participants reported feeling certain or very certain of their responsibilities under mandatory reporting law. Participants reported feeling most confident about their ability to recognise physical abuse, followed by neglect but were less certain with regard to emotional and sexual abuse.
The purpose of this review was to explore child abuse mandatory reporting by school counsellors. The review identified several barriers to effective mandatory reporting by school counsellors in the United States. Concerns about the quality of the therapeutic relationship; lack of knowledge about what constitutes enough ‘evidence; poor working relationships with Child Protective Services; CPS’ failure to investigate fully; and sub-optimal training experiences of school counsellors was evident in the studies identified. The findings here suggest that if mandatory reporting were to be adopted in the United Kingdom, attention should be given to the ability of Children’s Services to respond to increased reports and in particular, that increased training and awareness of child abuse and the new legislation would be critical. Currently in the UK there is no research which examines the receptiveness of professionals to implementing such a law, and therefore further research to assess the support or otherwise of mandatory reporting would be important. It would also be important to assess professional groups separately to understand whether there are challenges specific to their working relationships with children and families. The research included here provides clear messages that the implementation of mandatory reporting may not be straightforward, yet it must also be recognised that the studies identified are limited by sample composition, which have important implications for researchers’ ability to generalise their findings. Studies with better response rates and representative samples are crucial to understand how widespread these challenges and experiences with mandatory reporting are.
Abrahams N, Casey K, Daro D. 1992. Teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about child abuse and its prevention. Child Abuse & Neglect 16: 229–238.
Beck KA, Ogloff JRP. 1995. Child abuse reporting in British Columbia: Psychologists’ knowledge of and compliance with the reporting law. Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 26: 245–251.
Bryant J, Milsom A. 2005. Child abuse reporting by school counsellors. Professional School Counseling, 9: 63–71.
Crenshaw W, Crenshaw L, Lichtenberg J. 1995. When educators confront child abuse: An analysis of the decision to report. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19: 1095–1113.
Finkelhor D, Zellman GL. 1991. Flexible reporting options for skilled child abuse professionals. Child Abuse & Neglect, 15: 335–341.
Finlayson LM. 1990. Professional judgments related to child abuse reporting laws in child sexual abuse cases. Dissertation Abstracts International, 51(5-B): 2617–2618.
Finlayson LM, Koocher GP. 1991. Professional judgment and child abuse reporting in sexual abuse cases. Professional Psychology: Research &Practice, 22: 464–472.
Hackbarth S, DeVaney SB. 1994. Reporting suspected sexual abuse: A study of counsellor and counsellor trainee responses. Elementary School Guidance & Counselling, 28: 257–263.
Hinson J, Fossey R. (2000). Child abuse: What teachers in the ‘90s know, think, and do. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 5: 251–266.
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