Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The case of the mismatched shoes, and other ways CPS workers waste their time

    The call was one of more than 150,000 that are taken each year by Florida's child abuse "hotline." Someone was on the phone alleging that a child was in danger. Had the caller heard the child screaming in the night? No. Had the child complained about being mistreated? No. Had the caller seen welts and bruises? Uh, not exactly.

    No. The warning sign that this child was in grave danger was his or her shoes. One was red and one was blue.

    But because the call came from a school official and a school official is a mandated reporter, and because it happened in Florida, the Case of the Mismatched Shoes became a full-scale child abuse investigation. And a full-scale child abuse investigation is not a benign act. Even when it does not result in removing a child from the home, it can scar that child emotionally for years, maybe for life.

The news story in which this example turns up offers no details. But typically, a full-scale investigation means an inherently traumatic interview of the child, in which he or she may be asked everything from whether he thinks his parents love him, to whether they beat him, to detailed questions about sex (to see if he knows "too much," often deemed a "warning sign" of sexual abuse).

    Until recently in Florida, the questioning would be followed by a mandatory stripsearch to see if there were any bruises. That still is a common part of such investigations all over the country.

    Other investigations have been started in Florida for almost as little reason.

    In Sarasota County, a private school phoned the hotline over what a newspaper aptly described as a "you show me yours, I'll show you mine" incident involving two preschoolers.

    Or consider this incident from the town of Fernandina Beach:

A first grader allegedly pulled down another boy's pants in a school bathroom. And he placed his hand, palm up, on a chair just as a girl was about to sit there. She never did. The school guidance counselor and principal demanded that the boy's teacher call the hotline and report the five-year-old as a possible sexual predator.

"I said 'let me talk to the mother first'" the teacher would later testify. "Then [the guidance counselor] said 'No, you may not talk to the mother because the mother may be in on it too.'"

The teacher refused, so the principal made the call. The teacher was suspended and the school board tried to fire her, but backed down when an administrative law judge ruled for the teacher. But at least she was an adult. The five-year-old became a suspect in a child abuse investigation, questioned not only by the Florida Department of Children and Families but also by a Sheriff's detective.

    That's why the threshold for starting an investigation, and putting children through so much trauma, needs to be raised.

    Bob Butterworth, the reform-minded Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, who left that job this month, recognized that. One of his last acts was to begin the process of creating a rational method for screening calls to the Florida child abuse hotline. His successor, George Sheldon, is following through.

It's about time.

    I know of no state which does a really good job of screening calls to its hotline, (though New Jersey reportedly is improving) but Florida has been particularly lax. And it's not just family preservation advocates who think so. Back when the head of DCF was a fanatic about taking away children, she commissioned a study of the hotline, carefully selecting someone to do the study who shared her fanaticism. But even he couldn't stomach what was going on. The study concluded that at least 35 percent of calls passed on for investigation should have been screened out.

    The reason that's a problem is not only the trauma inflicted on children in tens of thousands of cases. It's also the fact that the false reports and trivial cases overload frontline workers. As a result, the study concluded, workers have less time for each investigation, increasing the likelihood that serious abuse will be missed.

    "The hotline is supposed to be a gate," the researcher who conducted the study said. "They've got the gate rusted, stuck open." As a result, cases pile up, creating a backlog of uncompleted investigations.     "I equate that to the game of playing Russian roulette. It's just a matter of time before some child in the backlog pool is really badly injured."

    Not long after, the mandatory stripsearch requirement was repealed. But nothing was done to bolster screening.    

    But now that Florida is reforming, there is the usual hand-wringing from those who feel any trauma inflicted on a child is justified as long as it's done in the name of cracking down on child abuse. It's the usual set of hypothetical scare arguments: "What if…" "Maybe…" "There just might be…" And that's true. But the chances that the child with mismatched shoes really is being abused at home are a lot slimmer than the chance that he was traumatized by the investigation. And the odds are greater that, all the time, money and effort investigating the Case of the Mismatched Shoes was diverted from some child in real danger who was overlooked.

    The truth is there always will be screening in child welfare. The choice isn't screening or no screening. It's rational screening – in which hotline operators are trained to ask questions and apply reasonable criteria – or irrational screening, in which reports cascade down on overloaded workers and get screened in or out based on which one happens to be on the top of the pile that morning.

    Either way some children in real danger will be missed. But a rational system of screening makes it more likely that more such children will be found.

    Now that Florida is figuring that out, I wonder when other states will as well.