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How Our Definitions of Child Abuse Impact Child Safety

A recent op-ed by Dr. Rachel Berger and Dr. Mary M. Carrasco highlights the impact of a recent Commonwealth Court decision that changed the legal threshold of evidence necessary to make a formal finding of child abuse from “substantial” to a much more stringent “clear and convincing” burden of proof. This will make it much more difficult to substantiate or indicate an alleged perpetrator of child abuse.

The concept of having different legal thresholds for child abuse substantiation and prosecution for crimes against children was intended to better ensure children in the community would be safe. Perpetrators under the former “substantial” evidence threshold were entered into the state’s child abuse registry, which is primarily a means to prevent perpetrators from gaining employment in jobs that come into contact with children. It seems clear the court’s decision will negatively impact the safety of children.

But while we think through the impact of this court decision, it is a good time to look into the research that calls into question whether substantiation of child abuse or labeling child abusers actually has much impact on the future safety of children.

The findings of one national study show that rates of repeat maltreatment or recidivism are similar regardless of whether alleged perpetrators are substantiated as child abusers. The study recommends looking into other predictors of re-abusing children, such as the types of services alleged perpetrators received, and the degree or intensity of their services (for instance, were their services court mandated or voluntary?).

Without question, the aforementioned Commonwealth Court decision raises some red flags, but it also provides us an opportunity to look at available research and decide if there are better ways to predict and prevent future child maltreatment rather than simply relying on a registry of named perpetrators. Perhaps there is a broader set of criteria to be collected on individuals who have abused children, one that helps determine if and how they are registered. Collecting data that better predicts future abuse would also help the child welfare system better target resources and interventions.


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