Virtually every state requires doctors, teachers, day care providers and law enforcement officers to report child abuse, but there is less uniformity among the states with regard to lawyers, clergy, therapists, or counselors. A few states require commercial photographic film processors to report to the proper authorities evidence of abusive activity. Some states are very specific in stating exactly who may be protected by the privilege, but some are noticeably vague. This is because the privilege itself is considered so important that a general abrogation of the privilege may be generally detrimental to the important relationships involved. For example, some states require health care professionals to report incidences of abuse, while others list as many as 20-25 professions, including dentists, chiropractors, nurses, hospital personnel and Christian Science practitioners.
The loss or abuse of privilege is not the only controversial or problematic provision of these laws. In many states, the definitions of what constitutes abuse is so broad as to cover a number of different circumstances, including some that may not be abusive at all. Coupled with the fact that in many states one need only have a reasonable suspicion that abuse has occurred in order to report it to the authorities, the laws have left many people fearful that innocent behavior may be misinterpreted by well-meaning, or worse, ill-meaning, private citizens.
The agency to whom suspected abuse is reported is often a state child protection office that is not hindered by the same constitutional restrictions to which traditional law enforcement agencies are subject. These agencies are sometimes allowed to take custody of children prior to actually proving that abuse has occurred. This is done in order to protect the child in question from potential abuse when the agent believes that there is a strong likelihood that the child will be, or continue to be harmed. Some critics of these laws fear the potential of extreme invasions into relationships between parent and child on the basis of very little evidence. Indeed, there have been cases where significant charges of child abuse have been made against individuals and severe action taken against them, such as children taken away from parents, day care centers closed down, only to have the charges later dismissed as lacking any concrete evidence whatsoever. For these reasons most states have passed laws that impose penalties not only for failure to report suspected abuse, but also for false reporting.
In the last few years state laws have changed in two significant ways. Several more states have added enticing or forcing children into sexually exploitive activity to the definition of child abuse. This represents a new definition of abusive activity distinct from sexual abuse. Obviously this new definition results from increased attention being given to child pornography.
Another change is the addition of pre-natal child abuse to the state statutes of South Dakota, Wisconsin and, arguably, Texas. These provisions raise some difficult questions (to the modern mind at least) about the definition of a “child” in the eyes of the law. It is very likely that these laws may find their way into the courts for further definition.