The Case for Mandatory Reporting as an Ethical Dilemma for Social Workers


  • Sam Harrell Portland State University
  • Stéphanie Wahab Portland State University



child welfare, mandatory reporting, social work education, criminalization, ethical dilemma


Mandatory reporting of child abuse is a part of the civil legal system that can activate a policy cascade disproportionately criminalizing racialized and marginalized communities. While social work scholarship has explored ways to increase provider compliance with mandatory reporting laws, there is a dearth of research focused on how social work education guides future providers towards the praxis of mandatory reporting discourses. This article presents findings from a content analysis of social work textbook excerpts focused on mandatory reporting of child abuse in the U.S. We found that textbooks affirm social work’s loyalty to the State by approaching mandatory reporting through a deontological lens and systematically reinforcing risk management practices. Although some texts offer a nod to mandatory reporting as facilitating ethical dilemmas, none offer guidance for how to navigate competing social work commitments, and none actually treat mandatory reporting as an ethical dilemma. We argue that social work education should equip future practitioners to: a) have a nuanced understanding of mandatory reporting laws and requirements; b) contextualize mandatory reporting within broader discourses of criminalization, professionalization, and neoliberalism; and c) ground future practices in macro social work ethics.


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