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Reports of abuse and neglect are plunging — and intensifying the debate about who must report it

‘Our entire system is based on mandatory reporting. If you don’t get this right, then the protective scheme falls apart,’ the state’s child advocate said.

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Since the coronavirus first roared into Massachusetts — disrupting businesses, schools, and daily life — reports of potential abuse or neglect of children have dropped by nearly a third. Those required to flag suspected mistreatment to state officials have filed thousands fewer allegations. Reports from school workers plummeted by 75 percent alone.

The drop-off has worried state legislators, who fear an untold number of allegations are going undetected. And the situation is prompting them to press a little-known commission to produce a road map for reshaping who is required to notify the Department of Children and Families when they believe a child is in danger.

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The Mandated Reporter Commission — launched informally more than two years ago and made official in a 2019 law — started its work long before the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted restrictions that made in-person interactions between children and teachers, doctors, and social workers less frequent.

But it’s become clear, the panel’s leader said, that the law and its nuanced applications are far more complex than even she realized. Its work has also stirred heated debate within child advocacy circles, where some support a vast expansion of the law and others argue the current statute already spurs frequent unfounded allegations that do little to better protect children.

The considerations prompted the commission to scrap a vote earlier this month on potential recommendations ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline. Instead, Maria Mossaides, the state’s Child Advocate and the commission’s chairwoman, said she hopes to file a status report and ask lawmakers for an additional six months to gather more public input after the panel’s initials plan for hearings were undercut by the pandemic.

The commission was slated to meet again on Tuesday, but moved their meeting to next week.

“Our entire system is based on mandatory reporting. If you don’t get this right, then the protective scheme falls apart,” Mossaides said last week. “It will probably be another 40 years until someone takes a comprehensive look at this statute.”

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It’s unclear, however, how the request will sit with legislative leaders anxious to see the commission’s plans for changing a law that stretches back nearly 50 years.

State Representative Denise C. Garlick, a Needham Democrat who’s spearheading the House’s child welfare-related initiatives, said it is “imperative” that the commission file a report with recommendations by month’s end, even if its work continues past then.

Garlick cited how restrictions to guard against the spread of COVID-19 have “exacerbated the risks to children” and limited their contact with mandated reporters. Between March and mid-October, DCF reported fielding 40,000 reports of suspected abuse or neglect — 29 percent less than the same seven-month stretch in 2019.

That included roughly 2,700 reports from teachers and other school personnel, who filed 10,900 — four times as many — during the same timeframe last year, state data show.

“The need for the work to identify, train, and hold responsible all mandated reporters to their duty, while always critical, is now urgent,” Garlick said.

The potential that officials are missing warning signs has been further crystallized in a horrific case in Fall River, where David Almond, a 14-year-old autistic student, died in October bruised, underweight, and with fentanyl in his system, authorities said.

His father and his father’s girlfriend are facing abuse and drug charges. But lawmakers have questioned how signs of abuse weren’t spotted earlier given the teen and his brother, who police said was also malnourished, were enrolled in Fall River schools and the family was involved with DCF.

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David Almond was logging into Zoom classes but his camera was turned off so no teachers saw he was emaciated, Fall River Superintendent Matt Malone said. DCF workers meanwhile had reportedly not seen Almond and his brother in person for months amid the pandemic as the agency scaled back its face-to-face visits.

State law currently designates a range of professions as mandated reporters, including physicians, dentists, teachers, and child care workers, all of whom have to immediately report suspected abuse or neglect to DCF. But since the law was first enacted in 1973, it’s undergone piecemeal changes, such as adding clergy to the list in 2002 in the wake of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.

The mandated reporter panel, largely made up of officials from state health, education, and law enforcement entities, was created to study the law and send legislators recommended changes.

A proposal it had readied for a vote on Dec. 3 included language that would specify — and significantly expand — who would qualify as a mandated reporter, including for the first time coaches and what it described as other “youth-serving individuals,” such as library workers. It recommended applying the law to not only paid staff but volunteers within educational, health care, or public safety institutions.

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The panel also was weighing a proposal that would subject those who are aware of severe abuse, but say nothing, to fines up to $50,000 — a 10-fold increase from current penalties — while specifying how information could be sent to a reporter’s licensing authority for additional discipline.

A DCF spokeswoman declined to make Commissioner Linda S. Spears available for an interview about the panel’s work.

“This is the first time, in a very, very long time, that there’s been a holistic review [of the law],” said Marian Ryan, Middlesex district attorney and a commission member. The pandemic’s impact on reporting, she said, “in a way, drives part of the need” to consider expanding who should be required to flag allegations.

“I think it has illustrated the fact that we rely 10 months of the year on kids going to school and they’re being surrounded by mandated reporters,” Ryan said. “When you take them out of the equation, who will be the mandated reporters for kids?”

Advocates acknowledge it’s impossible for the commission to consider its recommendations in a vacuum, particularly as the pandemic continues to upend daily life. But they also cautioned against allowing the drop in reports to be an overriding influence.

Last fiscal year, about 43 percent of all reports were “screened out” by DCF officials, meaning they didn’t meet the department’s criteria for what is suspected abuse or neglect. In thousands of others they investigated, DCF officials ultimately found there was no reasonable belief it occurred. The majority of all the reports that DCF receives alleged neglect.

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A coalition known as the Children’s Law Support Project also warned in a letter to the commission that some of its potential recommendations could prompt more unfounded allegations, and even worse, “exacerbate bias in reporting” against Black and brown families, who already make up a disproportionate share of DCF’s caseload.

“I think to say forget the pandemic would be unwise and uncalled for,” said Elizabeth McIntyre, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services and one of the letter’s authors. “But the fact that DCF is receiving fewer reports should not lead us to conclude there is unreported abuse or neglect happening. I’m not sure we know that’s the case.

“It’s going to be really critical for the commission to not just hear from lawyers and policy folks, but the people who are impacted by the decisions,” she said.

Others, however, are hoping the commission recommends to dramatically expand who would be mandated to report.

“If we get more people filing, that means there is going to be more of a complete picture on children,” said Tom King, executive director of the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance. “I can’t think of any argument that justifies turning a blind eye.”

Naomi Martin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.