Child Abuse Reporting
Variety of Reports
For many years, child protection officials sought to downplay the number of false reports. This, however, may be changing. A press release issued by the Florida Department of Children and Families in March 2012 explains: “In August 2011, the Sarasota Police Department filed charges against Taiwandra Burks and Stacy Hendry for making a false report of child abuse to the Florida Abuse Hotline and this month both were sentenced to jail.”
“If we receive a report of serious abuse or neglect, our investigators must see the children within two hours,” said DCF Regional Managing Director Mike Carroll. “False allegations waste the precious time and resources of our agency’s child protective investigators, who are investigating thousands of legitimate cases of child abuse and neglect each month.”
In July of 2012, a parolee was taken to the Warren County Jail on charges of filing false reports of child abuse against a woman.
Police said Jason T. Santos, 24, made two telephone reports to the New York Statewide Central Registry of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, alleging that a female acquaintance was using illegal drugs, such that she was unable to properly care for her two-year old child.
Police said the investigation revealed that Santos had fabricated the report because he was angry with the female for refusing to be his girlfriend.
In Westchester County, District Attorney Janet DiFiore announced that a suspect was arrested and charged with five counts of Falsely Reporting an Incident in the Third Degree. The suspect allegedly “made numerous reports to the New York State Office of Children and Family Services Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment alleging child abuse incidents which did not occur.” Each allegation concerned a different family.
“Descriptions and details of the alleged abuse in all the complaints were incorrect, misidentifying facts such as the races, genders and ages of the children and the whereabouts of the parent in question. All reports were totally fabricated and determined to be unfounded by Westchester County Child Protective Services who, by law, was obligated to investigate the cases,” explains the District Attorney’s press release.
From the Los Angeles Times comes this account of caseworker Jennifer Garza, who is investigating a report of domestic violence reported by a 17-year-old runaway girl:
Garza finds an immaculate apartment, with wind chimes on the porch, a computer, embroidered house rules hung on the wall, an umbrella folder of medical records, a fat toddler in bed watching “Aladdin” on the VCR, a well-scrubbed 13-year-old boy and a 35-year-old mother from El Salvador who speaks halting English. The mother asks for a Spanish-speaking social worker, but in the meantime gives Garza a synopsis. The daughter is incorrigible, Isabel Quezada says, and “wants to do what she wants to do.” She has run away and filed false complaints before.
“We get a lot of these,” Garza says. “Kids running wild and then reporting child abuse.”
“The current flood of unfounded reports is overwhelming the limited resources of child protective agencies,” explains Douglas Besharov, founding director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.
“For fear of missing even one abused child, workers perform extensive investigations of vague and apparently unsupported reports,” disrupting hundreds of thousands of innocent families each year.
Notes the former NCCAN director: “Even when a home visit based on an anonymous report turns up no evidence of maltreatment, they usually interview neighbors, school teachers, and day care personnel to make sure that the child is not abused.” And, even repeated anonymous and unfounded reports do not necessarily prevent a further investigation.
Besharov recounts the story of Kathy and Alan Heath, who had been subjected to three highly invasive child abuse investigations in as many years based on repeated anonymous reports.
“The Heaths say that even after they were ‘proven innocent’ three times, the county did nothing to help them restore their reputation among friends and neighbors who had been told, as potential
‘witnesses,’ that the Heaths were suspected of child abuse,” Besharov explained.
Social services officials investigated Susan Leventhal at least five times over the course of two years. Each time, Child Protective Services investigators cleared her. Then another call came into the hotline, starting the process all over again.
“As huge child-protection bureaucracies have been built around the country to cope with the genuine problem of child abuse, some people have learned that it is easy to disrupt the life of an enemy by making an accusatory call,” New York Times columnist William Glaberson reported.
Leventhal filed suit against the Connecticut Department of Children and Families to learn the identity of her accuser, however Superior Court Judge Referee Robert Hale ruled that she had no right to the information.
“The individuals whose identities the plaintiff is seeking to ascertain are exactly the individuals whose anonymity the statute at issue was designed to protect,” ruled judge Hale.
After her case gained national attention, Connecticut enacted a law making it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for making a false and malicious report of child abuse.
Keith Ferguson was investigated at least a dozen times over the course of two years by the Rensselaer County Department of Social Services. The Department was dutifully following up on repeated anonymous complaints made to New York’s Central Registry claiming that he was sexually abusing his children.
Ferguson received a letter acknowledging the problem from the Rensselaer County DSS, which said: “It is most unfortunate for you and your family that there continues to be false reports to the State Central Register against you.”
In responding to an inquiry regarding Ferguson’s situation, a spokesman for DSS said he can file a complaint with the police, but that will only do him some good if the accuser identifies himself or herself. These accusations have all been anonymous.
John Beaudoin, the County’s Social Services Commissioner, said that he couldn’t comment due to privacy laws. He did, however, volunteer to say: “Sometimes, unfortunately, people abuse the system.”
“It’s no secret that four to six of every ten cases are closed by CPS after initial investigation. The public knows that, the media know that, and so do the politicians,” writes Larry Brown of the American Humane Association.
“If CPS is chasing windmills in up to half of the reported cases, something is very wrong.”
A CLOSER LOOK
In considering reports from all sources, social work professor Chris Mouzakitis concluded: “Much of what is reported is unworthy of follow-up.”
Few unfounded reports are made maliciously, according to Besharov, who explains: “Studies of sexual abuse reports, for example, suggest that, at most, from 4 to 10 percent of these reports are knowingly false.”
Of the reports actually passed on for investigations, malicious or intentionally false reports constituted about 4 percent of the unsubstantiated investigations in 1995. But this figure was provided by only five states that endeavored to maintain this statistic.
Assuming these to be accurate estimates of the overall percentage of deliberately malicious reports, even this small a percentage would put the number of such reports in the range of 120,000 to over 300,000 per year.
“It is disturbing that no one is able to say how many accusations of sexual and physical abuse of children are incorrect,” wrote Third District Supervisor Susan Golding to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. “National authorities have estimated that erroneous diagnoses of child abuse are made in five to ten percent of cases.”
Golding also noted considerable evidence that false and malicious allegations are frequently used as a tool of harassment:
Over the past three months I have seen too much evidence that false accusations of child abuse and neglect may be being used as harassment. Often this is where the problem originates. Sometimes this occurs in custody disputes, through our concilitory process. Neighbor against neighbor. Foster parents against parents. The scenarios are numerous — some quite complex. These false accusations are flooding the already overburdened hot-line system…
Golding suggested that anonymous reporting ought to be reviewed, lessening the chance of individuals using hotline calls anonymously “to harass and falsely accuse for personal reasons.”
Anonymous reports would appear to be particularly troublesome, with only about 25 percent of them substantiated, as compared to 35 percent of reports from other nonprofessional sources.
Whether anonymous or not, during calendar year 2011, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families took in over 90,000 calls. The statewide percentage of calls substantiated varied somewhat from county to county, with the statewide substantiation rate being 10.27 percent. At the lower end of the scale was Ocean County with a 4.55 percent substantiation rate. Curiously, the highest substantiation rate was not for any particular County; rather it was for the category of “out of state.”
To the extent that the Heath, Leventhal, and Fergeson families may be considered as “fortunate,” it is only by virtue of the children not having been removed from their homes.
In spite of years of efforts to establish screening methods that would aid hotline operators in weeding out inappropriate calls, and to etch out uniform standards for CPS investigators conducting child removals, little meaningful progress has been made.
Study after study confirms that a significant number of children in state care have been unnecessarily placed there. A collaborative report issued by the County Welfare Directors Association of California, the National Center for Youth Law, Prevent Child Abuse California, the John Burton Foundation for Children without Homes, and the California Center for Research on Women and Families challenged the state of California to take “the bold step of developing a vision and strategy to prevent unnecessary entrance into foster care.”
The District of Columbia has a centralized reporting hotline, and a lengthy procedures manual to aid its workers in making adequate and consistent decisions. It isn’t until page 75 of the manual that mention is made of the reporting of false allegations, and it is limited to one short paragraph:
If the Agency determines that a false allegation has been purposefully reported or was made in bad faith, the Agency can and will refer the report to the Office of the Attorney General, who will determine if any formal prosecution is warranted.
Definitions in the procedures manual are broad, vague, and subject to interpretation. This is reflected in the findings of the District’s Citizens Reveiw Panel. “Referrals for investigation are accepted even though the criteria for abuse or neglect are not always met,” the Review Panel notes in its 2011 report.
The Panel concluded that the District’s Child and Family Services Agency “was often wrong to conclude that removing children from their families on an emergency basis was necessary to address those concerns.” In contrast, the Panel also concluded that:
decisions to return children to their families were virtually always right. Children rarely faced either significant safety concerns in those homes at the time of their exit from foster care or had documented cases of further maltreatment in that home. Taken together, these findings attest to the need for significant reforms to prevent unnecessary removals — and to prevent the unnecessary harm they cause to children and families.
The report unambiguously explains: “The Panel’s core finding that immediate threats did not justify the majority of removals studied suggests a significant need for clarification of the standard for such emergency removals and effective training and supervision to ensure this standard is always met.”
The Panel’s findings “reflect hundreds of children being removed only to be quickly returned to their homes every year. For these children and their families, these are severe, possibly life-changing events.” The Panel further illustrated its point, writing:
Many parents have had the experience of a toddler crying when dropped off at preschool even with a parent giving him a goodbye hug, assuring him that she will return within hours, and turning him over to a classroom full of unfamiliar faces. Now imagine that same child taken away by a stranger, over the parent’s objection, and without anyone able to tell him what will happen next or even when he will see his parent again. Days pass and people still cannot explain what will happen next, or why he hasn’t been able to see mommy for a long time. Weeks pass, and he gets to see his mom for brief visits, and then is taken away again, with no idea when he will see her again. It is not hard to see the emotional toll these separations impose on children or their parents.
The Panel cited three studies that were similarly critical of the District’s child removal practices.
THE NEW YORK EXPERIENCE
The New York State Registry may provide somewhat more reliable estimates, with 85,000 of the 486,000 calls it received in 1994 having been determined to be prank calls, many of which had to be treated as genuine until proven otherwise.
Of the calls made to the New York State Central Register in 1994, even after screening out duplicated reports and reports that did not meet the definitions of abuse or maltreatment,
128,111 reports were deemed meritorious enough to be passed along to CPS for follow-up.
“Abuse complaints accounted for 8.4% of these reports; the remainder of these reports concerned maltreatment,” explained a State Committee’s report. The report further explains that under New York State law, the terms “maltreatment” and “neglect” are used interchangeably. To put this all into perspective, the Commission explained:
It must be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of CPS cases are unfounded and expunged. In 1994, for example, only 27.2% of cases on which determinations were made resulted in indicated reports. Thus, 72.8% of all CPS records on which determinations were made were destroyed.
“For thousands of battered and neglected children, the state’s child abuse hot line is a lifeline rescuing kids from the horrors of beatings and sexual molestations,” Albany Times Union staff writer John Caher explained.
“But for unjustly accused adults who go to astounding lengths to prove their innocence and for children who are exploited as pawns in divorce or custody battles, the hot line is a noose.”
Caher explained that: “The system is designed to err on the side of overprotection,” and as a result:
Aside from simple mistakes, in which a well-meaning person wrongly reports what on the surface appears to be a case of child abuse, authorities acknowledge that the hot line is sometimes abused by estranged couples and malicious neighbors as a tool of intimidation and harassment. In New York, about 60 percent of the 130,000 reports to the hot line last year were unfounded – meaning investigators were unable to find any credible evidence of abuse or neglect when they interviewed the child and alleged abuser… About half of the people who appeal an indication of abuse or neglect have the finding overturned, state figures show.
“Some child welfare advocates have estimated that as many as 15 percent of calls to the hot line may be outright lies, up to 20,000 calls annually,” he explained.
According to a study issued by the New York State Senate, few reports indicated physical abuse, while the great majority involve various forms of minor neglect, usually stemming from situational circumstances related to poverty:
DSS reports that most reports involve neglect, rather than abuse. In 1995, 118,267 (91.7%) of all reports were for neglect, which includes inadequate provision of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care when the parent is financially able to provide them, as well as lack of supervision or emotional care, excessive corporal punishment, and abandonment.
There is some anecdotal evidence that would suggest that those reports made with malicious intent are likely to involve the most serious allegations. Former New York City caseworker and Turning Stones author Marc Parent explains:
Once in a while, cases generated by anonymous callers proved to be true, but not usually. Reported crack houses with children locked in small crates covered in bruises and urine often turned out to be buildings with doormen and well-cared-for children tucked tightly in bed. The toll of the false reports was exhausting. It was sickening to to visit families in the middle of the night, make parents wait outside, wake up children and strip them naked to look for bruises that were never there.
“More often than not,” he adds, “victims of false reports turned out to be people in the midst of completely unrelated feuds with a neighbor or two. Strange coincidence.”
One such feud generated a call to the Buffalo, New York, child abuse hotline reporting that two children were being left alone all day, forced to forage for food in garbage cans. When the caseworker arrived to investigate the allegations, she walked in on a wedding.
“The person who called the hotline was a spiteful neighbor,” explained Karen Schimke, who ran the Erie County CPS unit at the time. “She was upset at not having been invited to the wedding.”
“Anybody can call a child abuse hotline and report abuse — anybody, including your ex-spouse who hates you, your landlord who’s trying to evict you,” explains activist attorney Carolyn Kubitschek.
In Pennsylvania, out of eighteen reports made by landlords in 1988, none were indicated, suggesting that the child abuse hotlines may be used as a tool of harassment in landlord-tenant disputes.
“A landlord who tried to evict a tenant by turning off her water, reporting her to Child Protective Services and summoning police to roust her from her bed must pay $13,600, a judge said in an order to be entered in Roanoke General District Court today,” reports the Roanoke Times.
The judge awarded $2,500 to the tenant for trespass, $2,500 for malicious prosecution, $2,500 in punitive damages, and refunded her $575 security deposit.
The mother of a 2-year-old boy who suffered head injuries in a fall from a dilapidated apartment balcony sued her landlord, saying that he failed to keep the property safe.
The suit alleged that the landlord’s track record extended to his other properties, notably a complex at 1991 Story Road in San Jose, which has had health and safety violations that date back to 1990, according to court documents.
The suit also contended that the landlord “tried to shift the blame by calling Child Protective Services the day after the accident to file a report against the mother,” according to San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Carolyne Zinko.
Attorney Mark Chattin of the Legal Action Center for Real Change, an organization in Washington state that seeks to provide opportunities for low-income and homeless people, wrote a Tenant Talk column in which he candidly explained that his office “has heard of several incidents” in which landlords have “threatened to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service when a resident is undocumented, or Child Protective Services when it is a single parent household that is asserting their rights.”
The District of Columbia Citizen Review Panel reports a case wherein a child was removed from his uncle by the Child and Family Services Agency. The uncle was worried about a possible eviction, and he expressed that he was “tired, frustrated, and hungry.” The caseworker took this as an indication that the uncle was incapable of caring for his nephew.
The case record revealed an email from an agency lawyer to a Child Protective Services staff member stating “had CFSA responded differently to the uncle’s repeated requests for help, this case might never have led to a removal.” The Citizens Review Panel agreed with that assessment, noting that:
No imminent danger was present. The eviction was not scheduled for several weeks. CFSA could have helped the uncle obtain a housing lawyer to help him fight the eviction in landlord-tenant court or helped him obtain housing assistance, but instead CFSA removed the child. It is possible that the uncle would have refused to take the child back even if CFSA had provided this sort of assistance. But there is no way to know. We do know that the uncle did take the child back just three days later – strongly suggesting that the uncle did desire to keep the child.
The Citizen’s Panel examined a number cases in which children had been removed, finding that: “most of the removals studied lacked an adequate legal justification. None of the removals occurred pursuant to a Family Court Order, and thus all occurred pursuant to CFSA.s
authority to remove children to protect them from some immediate danger when removal is necessary to such protection. The Panel found that those conditions did not exist in the majority of cases.”
The Detroit Center for Family Advocacy is an initiative of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. Among the representative samples of their advocacy are two cases involving landlords.
“When an unresolved landlord-tenant dispute threatened to make a 26-year-old single mother and her seven children homeless, she was referred to the Center for Family Advocacy,” the Center’s web site explains.
With the Center’s help, the client and her family quickly relocated to a five-bedroom home in an attractive neighborhood on Detroit’s west side. The Center worked tirelessly, equipped the client with the parenting skills she needed, and helped her in pursuing her legal remedies against the landlord. Through the Center’s advocacy, the Department of Human Services closed its child protective case, and none of the children entered foster care.
In the second case, the Department of Human Services referred a client and her five children to resolve a landlord-tenant dispute that jeopardized the family’s housing, and placing the children at risk of entering foster care. A staff attorney negotiated a settlement of the landlord-tenant dispute, which enabled the client to save money necessary to obtain alternative housing. All the children remain in the client’s care. When closing out the case, the DHS case worker remarked, “You saved this family.”
While scholars debate the merits of family preservation and diversion programs, in the real world a little bit of genuine advocacy is often all that is needed. Would that social workers performed true social work, rather than conducting invasive and punitive investigations. If that were the case, so many families could be “diverted,” and their families thus “preserved.”
THE CUSTODY BATTLES
Harassment calls would appear to be quite common. For example, a Missouri committee determined that approximately 15 percent of all calls in the Springfield area were harassment calls.
Writes Keith Richards, an eight-year veteran of Long Island, New York, child protective services system: “People try to manipulate the CPS system all the time. You know, schools and hospitals calling to protect their behinds when a kid has a hangnail, neighbors harassing neighbors, estranged spouses trying to zap it to their ex.”
This raises questions concerning the number of deliberately false reports are generated during custody disputes. While the actual percentage of knowingly deliberate reports generated by custody disputes remains controversial, it nevertheless remains a genuine concern.
A Michigan study concluded: “Divorcing parents and their attorneys often attempt to use CPS motivated by their own custody objectives.”
Legislation was crafted in Virginia specifically to address this problem. A legislative committee found sufficient anecdotal evidence suggesting that such allegations often stem from the divorce attorney.
Among the many problems a Virginia subcommittee addressed in laying the groundwork for the legislation was what could be done about false child-abuse allegations in divorce and child custody cases.
“In Northern Virginia, this is becoming the tool du jour in custody cases,” said a member of the subcommittee.
The problem may be even worse when it involves noncustodial parents after a divorce has been settled. As Besharov explains: “the vast majority of reports from noncustodial parents prove to be unfounded.”
“False allegations levied during divorce or custody battles reside in a dark, musty and controversial corner of family law. Without exception, they elicit disdain from domestic law experts,” writes David R. Kazak, Legal Affairs Writer with the Chicago Daily Herald.
Steven N. Peskind, a Chicago divorce attorney who handles cases in DuPage and Kane counties, said the reason is simple: An allegation alone – regardless of veracity – holds incredible destructive power.
“It’s the nuclear bomb of family law,” Peskind said.
THE CANADIAN STUDIES
Nico Trocm4and Nicholas Bala examined the 1998 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, which they describe as being “the first national study to document the rate of intentionally false allegations of abuse and neglect investigated by child welfare services in Canada.”
Unsubstantiated investigations must be distinguished from intentionally false ones, they explain, as “most unsubstantiated investigations are the result of well-intentioned reports triggered by a suspicious injury or concerning behavior or a misunderstood story.” The researchers explain:
In contrast to unsubstantiated allegations, intentionally false allegations are intentional fabrications that are made in the hope of manipulating the legal system, or are made to seek revenge against an estranged former partner, or may be the product of the emotional disturbance of the reporter. If there is a deliberate fabrication made, it is important to distinguish between cases in which it is a parent or other adult who is taking the lead in the fabricating from those where it is the child who is fabricating the allegation without adult influence.
They caution also that: “It is also important to distinguish allegations that are clearly unsubstantiated or false, from those where abuse cannot be substantiated but remains suspected.”
They break down the research on false allegations in the context of parental separation disputes into two general categories: studies of divorce custody and access disputes where allegations of abuse arise, and studies of child protection investigations involving custody disputes.
Five studies in the category of access disputes examined intentionally false allegations of abuse. Rates of intentionally false allegations ranged from a high of 23 percent, to a low of 4.7 percent. The three remaining studies fell into a narrower 9 15% range. Some of these studies only examined sexual abuse accusations, whereas the study with the highest rate of intentionally false allegations also included physical abuse allegations. In summarizing their findings, the researchers explain:
An estimated 135,574 child maltreatment investigations were conducted in Canada in 1998, a rate of 21.58 investigations per thousand children. Forty-two percent of investigations were substantiated, and an additional 23% of investigations of maltreatment remained suspected. The remaining 35% of all investigations were considered to be unsubstantiated reports. While most (31%) of the reports of abuse that were unsubstantiated were considered to have been made in good faith, 4% of all reports were judged to have been intentionally false.
In a follow-up report based on 2003 data, researchers found that of the reports that child-protection workers themselves considered to be intentionally false, only 9% were made by custodial parents; 15% were made by noncustodial parents, and 33% were made by neighbors and
TENNESSEE CHILD CUSTODY CASE<
With the ever-mounting popularity of false allegations in custody disputes, a number of courts have conducted thorough investigations of their own accord. In some cases, the use of the “atom bomb” that is the false accusation of child abuse has backfired.
The Court Of Appeals Of Tennessee at Nashville had occasion to review an acrimonious custody battle. “The initial custody proceedings were highly contentious. They included the filing of
numerous motions, seven separate days of hearings over a course of four months, and a psychological evaluation of both parents,” the Court noted. In its written opinion, issued on July 3, 2012, the Court explained:
The mother of a five year old boy alleged that the boy’s father had sexually abused him, andshe petitioned the juvenile court to have the father’s visitation privileges revoked. After a long course of proceedings that included an investigation by the Department of Children’s Services, testimony by a number of mental health professionals, and a report by the guardian ad litem, the court concluded that the Mother’s allegations were unfounded, that her hostility against the father was having a detrimental effect on the child, and that it was in the child’s best interest that the father be named as the child’s primary residential parent in place of the mother. The mother raises numerous procedural issues on appeal, and she also contends that her allegations of abuse against the father were true, or at the very least that she had a good faith belief in their truth.
The lower court “found that Mother had engaged in a deliberate process of alienation by accusing Father of abusing the minor child, that she had refused to consider any evidence that the alleged abuse had not occurred, and that her obsession had led her to subject the child to multiple physical and verbal interviews and examinations of the child, which were not merited, did not produce any valid disclosures, and were detrimental to the child’s well-being.”
“Having carefully considered the mother’s allegations and her arguments,” the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order granting primary custody of the child to the father.
TEACHERS FIGHT BACK
A 2009 survey conducted in the U.K. questioned 1,155 members of Association of Teachers and Lecturers, including support staff, teachers, department heads, and school leaders in state and private schools.
More than a quarter of school staff — 28 percent — have been the victims of a false accusation by a pupil, according to the study. One in six — 17 percent — have had a false accusation made against them by a member of a pupil’s family. And, 50 percent of school staff said they, or a colleague, had had a false allegation leveled against them by a pupil or a member of a pupil’s family in their current school or college.
In half the cases, the allegation was dismissed by the school, and the police were notified in only 16 percent of instances.
“This survey suggests that huge numbers of staff are facing false allegations every week. It’s time the balance was redressed so that school staff are not presumed guilty until proven innocent,” said Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL.
By 1989, Florida’s teachers were growing weary of the false allegations. About that time, 211,000 names were on the Sunshine States abuse Registry. An attorney with the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association said that eight school employees had filed lawsuits seeking to have their names removed from the child abuse Registry, and another fifteen were planning to file similar suits.
During task force hearings, Florida’s legislators heard about a kindergarten teacher who was near retirement who wound up being listed among “confirmed” child abusers on the Registry. They heard of a father of seven — twice named teacher of the year — who brought clothing in for a needy student, only to find himself on the list as a result. Fifty seven Dade County teachers faced abuse accusations after breaking up fights. For those who could afford them, appeals could easily run into the thousands of dollars, and may take several months to complete even as a is teacher suspended awaiting the outcome.
As time went by, the Orlando Sentinel reported that 57 percent of “confirmed abusers” who took their case to an administrative hearing officer had their findings overturned, their names ordered off the Registry. Newspapers in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale reported that as many as 92 percent of appealed cases were overturned over a six month period.
THE FRIVOLOUS REPORTS
There would appear to be no shortage of frivolous reports. These may not be deliberately malicious, but of the variety of nuisance calls, or false alarms made to police or fire departments.
Consider the statement of a teen living in an housing project in Massachusetts, who explained: “One thing people do here, if they don’t like their neighbor, is to call the child protective.”
Evidently, some industry leaders may need to spend some time in the field with caseworkers such as Marc Parent and Jennifer Garza, as they fail to recognize that these frivolous, malicious and false reports only make an already impossible job all the more difficult.
Says David Liederman of the Child Welfare League of America: “Sure, there are loads of frivolous reports being made into the hotlines, but so what?”
Perhaps Liederman needs to spend a day in the Orange County Abuse Registry, where one of every four calls coming in is lost to the hold buttons and constant busy signals — a problem that has plagued the hotline for well over a decade.
The Orange County Abuse Registry takes in a tremendous volume of calls. However, a close look at the numbers clearly illustrates that that the majority of the calls are entirely unworthy for follow-up. As the 2003-2004 Orange County Grand Jury explains:
They receive some 40,000 calls per year and record some 26,000 calls related to child abuse. Eight percent of the 26,000 result in responses by Social Services workers. The balance of reports do not rise to the level of state-mandated requirements for intervention.
Many of the calls logged by the Registry aren’t reports of abuse or neglect at all; rather a significant number of them involve service requests of one kind or another. The Grand Jury notes that: “A substantial number of the calls received by CAR involve children with modest to severe medical conditions. In these cases, social workers must seek outside assistance for medical information and interpretation that takes considerable time to accomplish.”
Whatever the actual number, the deliberately false, malicious, and nuisance calls coupled with service requests are problematic because they divert resources away from children truly in harm’s way.
THE SERVICE REQUESTS
Even when reports are not made with malicious or frivolous intent, they still hamper resources. Douglas Besharov describes the well-intentioned, but otherwise inappropriate reports that are made to the hotlines:
Many involve situations in which the person reporting, in a well-intentioned effort to protect a child, overreacts to a vague and often misleading possibility that the child may be maltreated. Others involve situations of poor child care that, though of legitimate concern, simply do not amount to child abuse or neglect. In fact, a substantial proportion of unfounded cases are referred to other agencies for them to provide needed services for the family.
For example, in Rock County, Missouri, 3,213 referrals were received in 1994. Of those, 25 percent were screened out even before an assessment was done. Those were situations where a person had a concern about a family, but the concern did not meet the statutory definition of abuse or neglect.
According to the Beloit Daily News, such reports included: “a caller reporting a parent is using a babysitter too much,” or “using welfare money foolishly.” Those calls may be referred to another agency.
In 1995, intake workers with the Hawaii Department of Human Services received 15,000 to 20,000 calls from people reporting something wrong, according to Deborah Lee, assistant program administrator for Child Protective Services intake, abuse and neglect units.
“It may not necessarily be abuse or neglect but I think people are desperate, wanting some kind of assistance or support, and they don’t know where else to call,” says Lee.
According to a Georgia child protective services supervisor, the telephone intake workers frequently receive referrals that are not valid.
“It might not constitute child abuse or neglect where we need to be involved,” the supervisor said, “but the person that called felt that we needed to consider it.”
As of 1992 the New Hampshire Division for Children and Youth Services received approximately 13,000 reports a year. These ranged from inquiries about adoption procedures to reports of physical and sexual abuse of children. Of the 13,000 reports, the agency investigated approximately one half of them, about 6,700 allegations of abuse and neglect.
According to Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, in 1997, of the 355,579 calls made to its hotlines, only 19.2 percent were actually passed on for investigation.
DCFS explains: “The Register receives many types of calls, including multiple calls about the same report, calls from investigators seeking additional information and miscellaneous calls routed to the Department through the Register.”
Just how many of these “over 3 million reports of abuse and neglect” are actually requests for information or services, such as food stamps, is difficult to determine.
What is clear is that a very small number of the reports pouring into the hotlines actually merit investigation at all.
In Virginia Beach during the mid-1990s, the Department of Social Services received almost 500 calls per week. According to agency director Daniel Stone: “Many of these complaints are screened out because they do not meet the state/federal criteria for abuse or can be handled by another program.”
How many of these 500 calls per week actually result in an active investigation? Stone explains: “CPS investigators actively respond to over 60 complaints per week. Responding means that the worker must have a face-to-face interview with the child or children and must interview all alleged abusers or neglectors. All collaterals and parents who are not the alleged abusers must also be interviewed.”
In other words, of the approximately 500 calls received by the Virginia Beach Department of Social Services in any given week, about 440 calls do not merit an investigation.
Elsewhere in Virginia, Prince William County child welfare officials field nearly 5,000 reports a year, less than a third of which are classified as valid complaints. Of these, only about 300 annually, or six percent, are classified as “founded cases,” or those believed to involve actual wrongdoing.
The data would suggest that between the deliberately malicious reports, the frivolous reports, those that fall outside of the statutory definitions of child abuse and neglect, and the requests for information or other services, between 50 to 80 percent of those “3.1 million reports of abuse and neglect” made annually are not reports of abuse or neglect within the statutory definitions at all.
ALLEGATIONS AGAINST CAREGIVERS
It was only a matter of time before foster parents themselves organized to fight the false accusations. Originated in 2001 by Foster Parents Falsely Accused, the National Foster Parent Coalition for Allegation Reform has chapters throughout the United States, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The organization is currently gaining ground in Canada as well.
For many years, there has been a schism dividing biological parents and foster parents. With the growing realization that anyone may be falsely accused, some unique coalitions have been formed. Under the leadership of Harrison, the organization has expanded in scope to include all parents and caretakers who have been targeted by the system.
Among her more recent writings at Examiner.com, where she is Foster Families Examiner, is a “truth in training” series featuring false allegations of child abuse.
The growing awareness of the extent to which foster parents and other care takers are vulnerable to false allegations, and of the lasting repercussions that the findings may have, is due in no small measure to the efforts of Diane Redleaf and her team of dedicated legal staff at the Family Defense Center in Illinois. As detailed among the groundbreaking rulings in Dupuy v Samuels, when caretakers challenged the “substantiated” findings of their case workers, the results were staggering. As the Court explained:
Ultimately, 74.6% of appealed indicated reports are expunged throughout the appeals process. In fact, of the twenty-four named Plaintiffs who timely appealed indicated reports against them, DCFS expunged 100% of those indicated reports.
But clearing your name can take a considerable amount of time and effort. “The duration of the investigative and appeals processes for these twenty-four named Plaintiffs ranged from 0.4 years to more than three and a half years,” the Court noted in one of its rulings.
Accusations raised by children against foster parents and other designated caregivers have always plagued the industry.
In an effort to prepare prospective foster parents for what seems an inevitability, training curricula have been devised specifically addressing the subject of “Allegations of Maltreatment.”
One widely-disseminated curriculum, developed by the National Foster Parent Association, is based on the Legal Resource Manual for Foster Parents, authored by Cecilia Fiermonte, J.D., American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, and Regina Deihl, J.D., of Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting.
“This training is intended to educate foster parents about the agency administrative process involved in processing allegations of maltreatment. This is an important topic since many foster parents will experience an allegation of child abuse if they foster for an extended period of time,” explains the introduction to Module Four.
The three-hour presentation, complemented by either a slide-show or a Powerpoint presentation, candidly advises would-be foster parents to: “Be prepared in advance for the possibility that an allegation of abuse or neglect may happen to you.”
“Make sure you know what agencies are involved in investigating allegations of maltreatment, what procedures are used in your state, what the standard of proof is for substantiating an allegation,” the presentation continues. But that’s only the beginning. From there, the curriculum becomes far more candid:
When an agency representative first informs you that an allegation of abuse or neglect has been made against you, it is natural to be upset and frightened. Understand that the agencys first responsibility is to make sure that the foster child is safe and do not take the agencys investigation of the allegation as a personal insult. Make the foster child available in a private location so that the investigator can speak with the child. Before speaking with the investigator, contact a support person or attorney, if possible. Get the investigators contact information and remember to ask for all the documentation that you are entitled to receive. During the first interview, provide the names and contact information of collaterals that can corroborate your version of the events. Consider tape recording the interview if the investigator agrees. If not, take comprehensive notes during the discussion. If the agency decides to remove the foster child, or an adopted or biological child from your home, ask if visits can be arranged so that the child does not experience unnecessary trauma from the removal. Follow-up with information for the investigator after the initial interview, if necessary, and consider seeking legal advice on your rights in the investigation.
–from Legal Resource Manual for Foster Parents
Allegations of Maltreatment
THE NUMBERS GAME
Several influential groups continue to use the number of reports in such a manner as to confuse the casual reader into concluding that they meaningfully represent the true extent of child abuse. Among the groups that continue to use this slight-of-hand technique is the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (since renamed to Prevent Child Abuse America).
While the NCPCA itself reported on the extent of screening among the states in its 1994 Annual Survey, it framed the issue in a very different light in the conclusion of its 1996 Survey, in which authors Deborah Daro and Ching-Tung Wang wrote: “Child abuse reports remain at a high rate. Last year, child abuse increased slightly, exceeding 3.1 million.”
Has Deborah Daro read the 1994 NCPCA Annual Survey? One would certainly hope so, given that her name appears as that of an author. It is the selective presentation of facts coupled with a certain framing which has precipitated criticism of the NCPCA-provided figures in the past.
In 1993, for example, TIME Magazine branded the organizations claims about the number of abused children as among “flagrantly flimsy figures.” The NCPCA was taken to task on its framing of the then 2.7 million annual reports as representing the actual rate of physical abuse.
Child advocates meanwhile insist 2.7 million youngsters are suffering grievous abuse. But that statistic reflects total reports of suspected mistreatment, not substantiated individual cases, warns Douglas Besharov, former director of the U.S. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. Moreover, the figure includes not only instances of physical or sexual assault and starvation–as the public commonly assumes–but also so-called educational neglect and poor emotional nurturing. Besharov whittles the figure on child abuse to 420,000, though some experts say that’s too low.
The NCPCA was apparently undeterred by its critics, as it continued to use the technique of presenting increases in reporting as increases in actual abuse. “Child Abuse Rates Remain High – Over Three Million Children Reported Victims,” read the suggested headline of a NCPCA press release announcing the results of the 1996 Survey.
According to Deborah Daro herself, such obfuscation on the part of the NCPCA may be deliberate. Responding to criticism of NCPCA provided figures, Daro explained to reporters:
Our emphasis is not to give people the absolute truth but to give people a sense of the dimension of the problem.
Fortunately, the truth is far removed from the sense of dimension that the NCPCA and other like-minded groups endeavor to convey.
In reality, few of these reports indicate severe physical abuse of the type most people imagine when the number of reports is given. Fewer still result in founded dispositions of severe physical abuse upon investigation.
ONE STATE’S SOLUTION
After years of denying the true extent of the deliberately false child abuse allegations, some states are finally facing up to the problem, and addressing it accordingly. The Florida Dispute Resolution Center’s 2012 ADR Resource Handbook devotes several pages of coverage to the issue, explaining that: “A person who knowingly and willfully makes a false report of abuse, abandonment, or neglect of a child, or a person who counsels another to make a false report may be civilly liable for damages suffered, including reasonable attorney fees and costs, as a result of the filing of the false report.”
False reporting is a serious matter, however it is difficult to prosecute, an Issue Brief released by the Florida Senate explains. The Florida Senate’s potential solution to the problem of false reporting has shown some rather remarkable results:
One potential solution to false reporting is being demonstrated in seven Florida counties, including Citrus County. In those locations, a sworn law enforcement officer is assigned to each DCF unit doing protective investigations in each county or circuit. When a report is made and investigated and suspected to be false, the officer visits the individual suspected of making the false report, reads the individual his or her rights, and conducts a taped interview, during which the officer explains why he or she believes the report is false. Most often, the individual admits to having made a false report. The State Attorney’s Office works with the individual and law enforcement to agree on payment of restitution, rather than imposition of jail time. The payment recovers the cost of the investigation. This has resulted in a large drop in the number of false reports filed in Citrus County.
There are two significant findings in the Senate Brief. First, when the State Attorneys Office worked with the individual on restitution, rather than jail time, in Citrus County “100 percent of the suspects offered this arrangement have taken it.” Second, the Citrus Country Sheriffs Office estimates that “their office has gone from approximately 50-60 false reports of abuse each year to none so far in 2010.”