Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Child abuse allegations and Tiger Woods: If only this one could have been screened out

The number of children victimized by false allegations of child abuse is staggering – more than two million per year. Of course the overwhelming majority of these child victims don't wind up taken from their parents, but there is plenty of trauma nonetheless when children are interrogated about the most personal aspects of their lives and, sometimes, stripsearched by caseworkers or medical personnel looking for bruises. (If the allegation is sexual abuse, the medical exam is likely to be a lot worse.)

Mostly, these false reports are well-intentioned blunders by people who sincerely suspected maltreatment. Or they may have had the suspicion planted in their heads by those incessant campaigns to report anyone and everyone for anything and everything based on the slightest suspicion. Or they may have read one of those idiotic lists of "symptoms" of child maltreatment, most of which also can be signs of any number of other things. Often the lists are so broad that there is hardly a child in America who couldn't be considered a possible victim of child abuse or neglect at some point.

The malicious false allegation of maltreatment is relatively rare. But it can be among the most devastating, since a malicious caller can make that call over and over and over again. And since hotlines tend to be far too reluctant to screen out calls that means the investigation, the interrogation, and the stripsearch may be repeated over and over and over again.


When this happens to the children who usually are victimized, children whose families are poor and powerless, few in authority seem to care. But now, something new has been added: Some children victimized by a false allegation who have a high profile – make that extremely high profile – celebrity father: Tiger Woods.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported yesterday that the child abuse allegation that brought the Florida Department of Children and Families to Woods' home last month not only was false, it may well have been a malicious call. So now, all of a sudden, the state senator who chairs the relevant committee is shocked – shocked! – that children sometimes are victimized by malicious false allegations.

"To use the resources of the state for some grand celebrity theater is completely unacceptable," Sen. Ronda Storms, told the Sun-Sentinel. "It robs children who are legitimately in danger."

She's right, of course.

Storms also told the Sun-Sentinel she fears that if whoever made the false report in this case can get away with it, it might encourage others.

Right again.

But instead of actually moving to do anything about the problem, all she did was write to DCF Secretary George Sheldon to demand that he do something about it – in this particular case.

Odds are there is very little Sheldon can do, in the Woods case and in most of the other cases of alleged malicious false reports, for one simple reason: The people making such reports don't have to leave their names. Not only is such anonymity permitted, it's often encouraged. Campaigns to get people to report their most feeble suspicions often include a reminder that "you can remain anonymous."


That needs to change. Here's how we discuss the issue in our Due Process Agenda:

Of all the sources of child abuse reports, anonymous reports consistently are the least reliable. They're almost always wrong. A study of every anonymous report received in the Bronx, New York, over a two year period found that only 12.4 percent met the incredibly low criteria for "substantiating" reports – and not one of those cases involved death or serious injury. The researchers found that "one case was indicated for 'diaper rash' one case for welfare fraud, and two cases because the apartment was 'dirty.'"

Anonymous reporting should be replaced by confidential reporting. If someone who may have a grudge or someone who simply may be clueless wants to claim that, say, a neighbor is abusing a child, that person should be required to give the hotline worker his or her name and phone number. That information still should be kept secret from the accused in almost all cases, but the hotline needs to know. That will immediately discourage false and trivial reports.

In cases of alleged malicious reports, the law should allow the accused to go to a judge and explain why he feels he is being harassed by false reports, and by whom. The judge should check the record and, if the accused is right, and if the judge is persuaded that the reports are an act of harassment, the name should be released to the accused, who should have the right to sue for damages.

Of course, the objection to banning anonymous reports, and the objection to any kind of serious screening mechanism, is that some anonymous calls may be legitimate.

That's true.

If you ban anonymous reports, some real cases might be missed – though anyone who is sincere and has genuine reason to suspect maltreatment should be comfortable with confidential reporting.

But more real cases are missed now by overloading the system with false reports – just as Sen. Storms suggests. There always will be screening in child welfare. The choice is not between screening and no screening. The choice is between rational screening and irrational screening. The more cases that cascade down upon investigators the less time they get for each one. So some get short shrift. It is far safer for children if cases are screened rationally by eliminating anonymous reports, rather than irrationally based on which file floats to the top of the pile on a caseworker's desk.

As the authors of the Bronx study put it, in recommending that anonymous reports be rejected: "The resources of child protective agencies are not limitless. The time and energy spent investigating false reports could better be given to more serious cases, and children may suffer less as a result."

So Sen. Storms, if you are serious about wanting to protect children from harassment, and maybe save some children's lives, by directing resources where they'll do the most good, you know what you have to do: Introduce legislation to replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting.

I'm not holding my breath. It would take a great deal of political courage to introduce such legislation. But if she fails to act, I hope reporters will remember what she said. You know, the part about: "To use the resources of the state for some grand celebrity theater is completely unacceptable," the next time Ronda Storms holds a news conference in a state office building.


In the particular case of the Tiger Woods case, the Woods children also may be victims of bad timing. The call about their father came in less than a month after the Miami Herald ran those misleading stories about the hotline, suggesting, wrongly, that it was screening out too many cases. Those were the stories which included suggestions that DCF should investigate absolutely every report, no matter how absurd.

I don't know what actually was in the report concerning the Woods family. Perhaps the caller did, in fact, leave his or her name. Perhaps there was enough credible information to merit the investigation. Even if there wasn't, under current Florida law, if the caller alleged something that fits the legal definition of maltreatment, it must be screened in, even if the source was anonymous and could provide no basis for the allegations. But screening out a report about Tiger Woods would have been tough in any event in light of his high profile marital problems. It would have been even harder in the wake of the Herald's reporting.

But there also is some good news about Florida. That story tomorrow.