Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse: Germany Does Without It

Bernie Warner, Washington State’s Secretary of Corrections, is among a group of prison officials, prosecutors, researchers, and activists from the U.S. now touring prisons in Germany. They hope to learn whether the gentler treatment of prisoners in Germany could be imitated, with good results, in this country.

I don’t think Mr. Warner’s group will have time, but I would like someone from American officialdom to study another stark difference between our justice systems: Germany does not have mandatory reporting of child abuse.

In each of the 50 states, all workers in certain occupations—teachers, doctors, psychotherapists, clergy, and more—are legally required to call the authorities whenever they have good reason to think a child has been physically or sexually abused.

This is mandatory reporting. There are penalties for persons who learn of child abuse and don’t make a report.

The benefit of mandatory reporting is plain. If a person is prone to abuse children, the first time a mandatory reporter learns he has acted will probably lead to a report, and that will lead to some kind of intervention—such as criminal prosecution. That intervention may stop him from further acts of abuse. (This assumes mandatory reporters obey the law. As scandals in the Catholic church and elsewhere have shown, not all of them do.)

But mandatory reporting has a downside.

It deters persons who have abused a child and are prone to do it again from getting help controlling their deviance. They know that if they seek counseling or specialized deviance treatment, a report will likely be made, and they will be looking at jail or prison time and life-long stigma after that.

Not many people choose to put themselves in that much trouble.

That’s why the United States does not have Prevention Project Dunkelfeld. Germany has it.

PPD invites persons with a sexual attraction to children to reach out to the organization for help. If they have already acted on the attraction, they can still safely come for help, according to its Web site:

The therapist is obliged to maintain confidentiality regarding any child sexual abuse committed in the past, in fact, breach of secrecy is a criminal offense in Germany… . If the legal situation were different, these “offenders in the dunkelfeld [“dark field,” meaning the category of unknown offenses] would remain “in the dark” and would never be approachable for treatment.

I wonder how the results of the U.S. and German models compare. How much child abuse is committed in Germany by persons who would have been stopped if their earlier child abuse had been reported by professionals who learned of it? How much less child abuse is committed there because persons who had committed some, and were likely to commit more, felt they could get help without putting themselves in prison?

These would be difficult questions to answer, even with very carefully designed studies, but the questions are too important to ignore.