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A child sits alone on capitol steps, symbolizing the impact of Utah clergy reporting bill on child welfare.

Utah’s Legislative Leap: From Reporting to Supporting Child Welfare

New Utah legislation follows best practices for child safety, merging legal protection with moral duty.

Working as a mental health therapist in Utah, I am familiar with the angst and conflict that can come from mandated reporting. Most people would agree that the intent is to protect children and vulnerable adults.

But these policies cause more harm to the vulnerable children they are designed to protect because they decrease the effectiveness of governmental bodies in identifying children who are actually at risk. As Dr. Mical Riaz has stated:

we should be extremely cautious that our outrage is not translated into advocacy for policies that not only don’t adequately protect children but may ultimately be harmful. This is the case, I argue, for calls to expand mandated reporting. Increased reporting sweeps up large swaths of the population in a network of coercive investigations and interventions but doesn’t help keep kids safer. 

As a professional, I’m aware that getting authorities involved can backfire. In one survey, 50% of children whose families had been reported for abuse said the intervention of authorities made the situation “much worse,” while only 3% said it made it “much better.” I am also aware of cases where intervention is needed. However, professionals are legally required to make reports in situations regardless of the individual circumstances.

Getting authorities involved can backfire.

I have experienced the conflicting emotions that come from being legally obligated to make a report while also recognizing that it will not be beneficial for the individual or the family. Due, in part, to these context-blind legalities, professional organizations have indicated that “CPS investigations alone can do immediate and long-lasting psychological harm” to the children they are meant to help. The Child Welfare Information Gateway comments:

The current mandated reporting system has led to the over-surveillance of families experiencing poverty and families of color. This has contributed to distrust in the child welfare system and may add to families’ reluctance to reach out for help when facing a lack of resources or difficulties (e.g., unemployment, housing instability) that are risk factors for child abuse and neglect. 

Indeed, if all-encompassing mandated reporting is considered the golden standard, many families and children will be left behind because their fear of governmental bodies overrides their need for help and resources. They would rather be a hungry, houseless, or overworked family than a separated one. With this understanding, advocates for policy change have shifted from “mandated reporting” to “mandated supporting.” JMAC for Families, an organization promoting this shift, states, “This mandated supporting framework seeks to center families through equitable, harm reductionist, and anti-racist practices, while divesting from systems of surveillance and punishment.” In essence, mandated supporting allows professionals to morally and ethically consider the context. 

Utah’s Proposed Bill 

A clergy member reflects on the vast Utah landscape, mirroring the depth and impact of the Utah clergy reporting bill.
Utah’s new bill represents best practices for clergy reporting

Recent legislation in Utah is taking one step forward on this path. This bill ensures that clergy are in a position where they can have the freedom to report in appropriate cases without state coercion in either direction. In understanding the importance of this new legislation, we need to explore not only mandated reporting but also clergy-penitent privilege. This privilege was established with the idea that “the trust surrounding a confession produces good results for society [and that] states want to ensure those confessions are private.” To this end, many states have made legal adjustments to ensure that clergy are legally obligated to keep confessions private and are only allowed to report at the behest of the penitent (very similar to attorney-client privilege). With these laws, though, clergy confronted with clear abuse find themselves legally bound not to report. 

This law puts Utah firmly in the realm of best practices on this matter. It allows people of conscience to seek help for children as needed without legal risk but does not endorse the mandatory reporting policies that ultimately harm children.

The current proposed bill “amend[s] the state’s child abuse reporting requirements to include legal protections for members of the clergy who report cases of ongoing abuse or neglect learned through a religious confession.” In summary, clergy still maintain the right to confidential confessions while also receiving protections when they morally and ethically report cases of abuse.

This law puts Utah firmly in the realm of best practices.

The logic of the new bill seems to be in line with “mandated supporting.” Particularly because, unlike counseling or doctors’ offices, clergy are uniquely situated to provide resources to individuals who may need help rather than submitting those within their congregations to unnecessary CPS investigations. Rather than contributing to an already overwhelmed government institution, clergy could provide a safe, confidential space for their constituents to receive help while also providing legal protections in situations in which they identify the need for more urgent intervention.

While it would be natural to be concerned that this law leaves leeway for bad actors not to report abuse that should be reported, there is no silver bullet here. This approach should help the most children possible.

How the Church Supports Reporting

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides a good example for addressing concerns of abuse reporting within these clergy positions. Church leadership is already provided with training for working with children and youth. This educational training was created to help leaders “recognize and prevent physical, sexual, verbal and other types of abuse. [This] resource … can also help [leaders] to recognize and prevent abuse. The training provides scenarios to help you better understand and apply key principles and policies.” Additionally, the church leadership consistently speaks out against abuse to the members. In a recent conference address, President Nelson publicly condemned it once again, saying: 

For decades now, the Church has taken extensive measures to protect—in particular—children from abuse. There are many aids on the Church website. I invite you to study them. These guidelines are in place to protect the innocent. I urge each of us to be alert to anyone who might be in danger of being abused and to act promptly to protect them. The Savior will not tolerate abuse, and as His disciples, neither can we.

Additional counsel around reporting abuse would be a relatively easy and welcome addition to an already detailed training. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Church employs a hotline staffed by lawyers and therapists, precisely the kinds of professionals who have been shown to make the best decisions about when to report abuse. Utah’s new law should allow the professionals employed by the Church of Jesus Christ to make decisions that will help save the most possible children.

Looking Toward a Better Solution

A vocal advocate for victims of sexual abuse, Jennifer Roach, said, “Any abuse is too much.” And I echo that statement. However, evidence is showing that increasingly strict mandated reporting laws are not an effective solution to the problem of abuse. The proposed Utah bill strikes a delicate balance that will allow for moral and ethical judgment in reporting while also protecting those reporting abuse. This could be a productive model that other states could adopt and may have wider applications for professionals beyond clergy. 

 

About the author

Brianna Holmes

Brianna Holmes graduated with a degree in Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling and is currently a practicing counselor in Utah. Her area of interest is how professionals can focus on the agentic nature of human beings in therapeutic practices. She and her husband are parents to four beautiful children.
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