a critical look at the child welfare system

The social workers and counselors are so eager to find child abuse or neglect. The bottom line is you give a lot of people a stick and they are going to swing it.

Judge Ralph Adam Fine
Wisconsin Court of Appeals


An investigation into allegations of child abuse can be the most devastating event a family may ever face. Even when found innocent of these charges, friends, neighbors and employers may have been contacted and interviewed, and the stigma of being falsely branded a child abuser often remains. Douglas Besharov, the original director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, explained this process in during his 1987 testimony before the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families:

Unfortunately, the determination that a report is unfounded can only be made after an unavoidably traumatic investigation that is, inherently, a breach of parental and family privacy. To determine whether a particular child is in danger, case-workers must inquire into the most intimate personal and family matters. Often, it is necessary to question friends, relatives, and neighbors, as well as school teachers, day care personnel, doctors, clergymen, and others who know the family. [1]

“These programs are the largest, and often the most controversial, complex and challenging of any programs administered by the department,” writes Daniel M. Stone, Director of the Virginia Beach Department of Social Services. “More than 21 social workers and supervisors respond to about 444 reports of suspected child abuse each month. Investigators must go into homes, schools and neighborhoods to talk with children who have reportedly been abused and with the adults who have allegedly abused them.”[2]

The toll of an investigation on a family can be high, writes Dana Mack of the Institute for American Values, noting that the investigation can last as long as six months.

“Typically, caseworkers will enter a home for the first time at an odd hour, with no previous announcement, giving no information about the nature of the charge held against the family, nor who has made it,” writes Mack. The homes of accused families are always checked, with refrigerators opened and the bathrooms inspected. “Neighbors and school personnel are questioned about the family, particularly about the reputation, behavior and habits of the parents,” writes Mack, noting that it is not unusual in some jurisdictions for child welfare workers to enter homes in the middle of the night, stripping children naked and probing their genitals for evidence of abuse.[3]

Writing in the professional journal Social Work, Elizabeth Hutchinson argues that the costs of mandatory reporting laws far outweigh the benefits, and that greater emphasis needs to be placed on the development of family preservation programs. Hutchinson describes the long-term impact such an investigation may have on a family:

Investigation of a report of child maltreatment is not an innocuous intrusion into family life. By the time an investigation is complete, the family has had to cope with anxieties in both their formal and informal support systems alerted to state suspicion of their parenting. Even if the report is expunged from the central registry due to lack of substantiation, it is seldom expunged from the mind of the family–or from the memories of persons in the support system.[4]

Such investigations may involve repeated and relentless interrogations of children, and a battery of psychological testing for both the parents and their children. These tests are often conducted by a parade of court-appointed psychologists and therapists.

Notes author Thomas Sowell, somewhere between 2 million and 3 million allegations of child abuse and neglect tie up the nation’s hotlines every year. Of that number, 60 per cent are deemed false and dropped. Of the remaining 40 per cent that lead to investigations, writes Sowell, about half eventually are dismissed, “but not before children have been strip-searched, interrogated by a stream of social workers, police officers, and prosecutors, psychologically tested, and sometimes placed in foster care. Such actions usually occur without search warrants, parental consent, court hearings, or official charges — and often solely on the basis of the anonymous telephone call.”[5]

Child protection caseworkers may overstep reasonable boundaries during their investigation, explains Besharov. In Virginia Beach, for example, the child protective services agency agreed to pay $4,000 to settle a father’s claim that he was subjected to “a course of conduct amounting to harassment, including threats of prosecution for crimes and conduct of which the plaintiff was innocent.”

The father also alleged that the workers “maliciously and falsely addressed remarks to third persons, the substance of which were that the plaintiff was an alcoholic; that the plaintiff was mentally unstable and was ‘a very sick man’; that he was guilty of child molestation; that they were going to take his child or children away from him; and that he would be prosecuted criminally.”

Besharov explains that such problems may be particularly acute when it comes to allegations of child sexual abuse: “Some agencies intervene on the most tenuous evidence, especially in cases of sexual abuse. It is almost as if the presumption of innocence has been suspended in these cases. Thus, lawsuits for the unjustified removal of children have been settled for amounts ranging from $10,000 to $35,000.”[6]

While police require probable cause before they may conduct a search or seizure, the reality is that the standard of evidence social workers apply is often all but non-existent. Children are often removed from their homes without any evidence, while social workers conduct their investigation. The removal may be based entirely upon an anonymous call, or an “instinct” on the part of a social worker.

In Texas, a 1991 case involved a social worker who came in and took two young boys on allegations of sexual abuse. A 17-year-old social worker applied for a court order to remove the children based on a “feeling” that they were being abused. A trial consultant associated with the case describes what happened next:

Based on her authority, she came out with a dozen assault weapon-armed sheriffs deputies at 3 a.m., and this young father wakes up with rifles at his head. That was a 17-year-old who hadn’t finished high school.

Two years later, the father has passed three lie-detector tests and a plethsymograph, a test that purports to measure sexual response to photographs of naked adults and children. But the children remained in foster care as the father fought to prove his innocence and regain custody.[7]

In a candid interview with Massachusetts News, the Chair of the Legislative Committee on Foster Care, State Rep. Marie Parente, leveled serious charges at the Department of Social Services saying, the department is “perverting the system” by conducting their business without regard to due process for families. Parente explained that one caseworker in a DSS office talked about child molestation all of the time, even going to the extent of bringing leaflets and books on the subject into her office. “She’d been molested as a child,” Parente explained, “and in every case she handled she saw child molestation whether it was there or not.”

Parente asserts that psychological testing should be administered to social workers in order to weed out the most obsessive among them, having asked one commissioner: “Has it ever occurred to you that they may be as sick as the people they are interviewing? You don’t think that people bring their problems to the job?”[8]

Indeed, Kenneth Lanning of the FBI notes that many caseworkers may have entered the field of child protection because they have themselves been abused as children. They go about the task of investigating with a “hidden agenda”–recruiting children they question into “the brotherhood and sisterhood of the sexually abused.”[9]

As Judge Ralph Adam Fine, who now presides over the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and who once worked in children’s court, explains:

The social workers and counselors are so eager to find child abuse or neglect. The bottom line is you give a lot of people a stick and they are going to swing it. The rules aren’t structured to provide the kind of due process that America supposedly prides itself in.[10]

In Washington, State Representative Val Stevens, R-Arlington, has occasionally taken her fight against CPS into her constituents’ living rooms, joining parents to resist when a child protective worker worker shows up to try to remove a child.

“I believe that oftentimes the family is not as broken as CPS would have us believe,” says Stevens.[11]

Says Missouri State Representative Glenn Hall, R-Grain Valley, investigators bring along police and “come to your door with a gun in their hand saying, ‘Give me your kids or you die.'”

During House debate on a measure intended to make child abuse and neglect investigations less adversarial, the Kansas City area lawmaker attempted to amend the bill to impose civil penalties on the division if it removes children from their homes without a strong case to show child abuse. As an attorney, he said he has represented clients fighting the “Nazilike tactics” of child abuse investigators.[12]

During his Congressional testimony, Douglas Besharov explained the relationship between the high volume of unfounded reports entering the system, and the apparent zeal with which child protective investigators conduct investigations of vague reports:

The current flood of unfounded reports is overwhelming the limited resources of child protective agencies. For fear of missing even one abused child, workers perform extensive investigations of vague and apparently unsupported reports. 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.

Besharov suggested to the Committee that a better screening system be implemented to reduce the number of investigations stemming from false allegations of abuse, suggesting that calls be more effectively screened; that clear definitions be established as to what constitutes abuse and neglect; and that an intake system be developed:

The kind of intake decision-making that I am proposing cannot be done by clerks, nor by untrained caseworkers. The agency’s best workers should be assigned to intake–where they can have the greatest impact. In fact, I would suggest that we make assignment to intake a promotion, in which we place our most experienced and qualified staff.

“But in seeking to protect children, it is all too easy for courts and social agencies to ignore the legitimate rights of parents. This is a massive and unjustified violation of parental rights,” said the former NCCAN director. Social workers must be better trained to distinguish between actual cases of abuse and neglect, and those which do not merit further investigation. Guidelines must be established to assist the social workers in understanding and respecting the civil rights of parents.