Monday, December 26, 2011

Child abuse at Penn State: Jerry Sandusky, foster parent

            Given the mad rush to tell anyone and everyone to report anything and everything as “child abuse” – or maybe even force us all to do it – this seemed like a good time to remember the ultimate consequence: foster care.

            With everyone running scared, there will be a lot more reporting of all kinds of “child abuse” – including “neglect,” which so often is confused with poverty.  In fact, calls to state child abuse hotlines already have spiked, not only in Pennsylvania but also New York and New Jersey.

            That means more children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love because they are poor, as in this case from Houston.  It also means more children needlessly consigned to foster care just because caseworkers are afraid to do anything else.

            The majority of foster parents do the best they can for the children in their care, like the overwhelming majority of parents, period.  Some foster parents are true heroes.  But one study after another has found abuse in one-quarter to one third of foster homes, and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.

            Oddly, however, in all the hundreds of stories written about Jerry Sandusky two facts rarely are mentioned, and almost never get much emphasis:

            ● Jerry Sandusky was a foster parent.
            ● Jerry Sandusky’s charity began as a group home.

            So if Jerry Sandusky is guilty that should give us all something to think about:

Before we support laws turning everyone into a mandated reporter who risks going to jail if we don’t call a hotline whenever we think someone just might be abusing or neglecting a child, do we really want to put more children at risk of being placed with the next Jerry Sandusky?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Binghamton, N.Y. is a cesspool of depravity! BEWARE! BEWARE! BEWARE!

If there are any children outside in New York’s Southern Tier anymore it’s only because so few people still read newspapers.

No parent in her or his right mind would let a child out of the house, or even out of sight while in the house after reading the ten – ten! – fear-mongering stories splashed all over the Binghamton, N.Y Press & Sun Bulletin and its sister paper, the Elmira Star-Gazette on December 4. (Assuming, that is, that the parent made the mistake of believing the stories.)

Given the shrunken size of small city daily newspapers, it’s hard to imagine there was any room for anything else in the papers that day; apparently there was nothing but story after story sending messages like this:

Beware!  Sex offenders actually live in our neighborhoods!  Don’t drop your kids off anywhere! (except grandma and grandpa – maybe).   A volunteer gives a gift to a preschool child – it must be “grooming”! Johnny needs to get two blocks to a youth basketball game – quick get the minivan!  What?  Your teacher helped you after class with your homework and no one else was in the room?  Call the hotline!  Your teenager is moody and having school problems? It’s sexual abuse! 

The ten stories appeared under the umbrella title “Protecting our children from people we should be able to trust.” Other headlines included: “Background checks can’t replace vigilance” and “Grooming: It’s how predators have their way with you and your child.” After reading through all this it’s apparent that either the Southern Tier is a cesspool of depravity beyond comprehension – or post-Penn State paranoia has gotten way out of hand.  (The papers did publish a brief op ed column I wrote in response.)

Consider a few anecdotes from the series:

● A day care center director sees a volunteer laughing and joking “excessively” with a child.  The volunteer buys the child a gift – “a seemingly innocent charm.” Knowing that “this is often a predator’s ploy…the volunteer was confronted and removed from the daycare center.”  The center director declares that “I’m completely convinced the child would have been a victim.”

● When Jim Norris returned to coaching a grammar school basketball team after many years he was shocked that

parents would be driving their sons two blocks or whatever and dropping them off – two blocks … I say to [an assistant coach] “What’s this all about? No one walks or rides a bike?”  He says “Jim, these aren’t the old days.  You have no idea who’s out on the street these days.”

● Kim and Robert Michalak of Johnson City are taking precautions:  

[They] both work full-time and use the phone to stay connected with their four active sons. Each boy is required to call in his whereabouts and ETA, wherever he goes. Kim makes it her business to know their friends and the friends' parents, and has a seat on [the Johnson City] school board.  "I have my ears to the wall," she said.

To help you keep your ears to the wall, there’s a 1,542-word guide to things to watch for, in adults and in your own children, reprinted verbatim from a mysterious website.  Advice includes:

Emotional and behavioral signals [of sexual abuse] … can run from “too perfect” behavior to withdrawal and depression, to unexplained anger and rebellion.

Well, that certainly narrows things down.  Oh, wait.  The guide helpfully adds this: “Be aware that in some children there are no signs.”

Another “expert” warns that “Abusers generate situations where they are alone with the child … Babysitting, tutoring, coaching and special trips enhance isolation.” Well, yes.  But they’re also standard parts of a normal childhood.  Are we now to tell teachers they shouldn’t offer students help with their homework?  Should guidance counselors stop meeting with children to let them seek help with personal problems?

And you know how the right-wing keeps telling us marriage is the solution to all family and societal problems?  Not if you already have a child from a previous marriage. The Press & Sun Bulletin tells us that, according to one expert:

A favorite target victim is a child living with a single mother … The predator  may offer to babysit or watch her children after school, and will sometimes pretend romantic interest in the mother or express a desire to be a father figure or mentor for her child. He may even marry her or move in with her. The relationship with the mother can be used as a cover for his interest in children, and her child can be used as bait to lure or gain access to other children.

So all you single moms out there: Forget about remarrying, or even dating.  Better just keep men out of your lives entirely.


Some of the advice sprinkled among the stories is remarkably contradictory.

Rabbi Barbara Goldman Wartell says that at her synagogue, in the words of one story, “Everyone will also be watching everyone else, with little tolerance for odd behaviors.”  But the mysterious website warns that “people who abuse children look and act just like everyone else.” So shouldn’t we, in fact, be least afraid of those who behave oddly?

Elsewhere a parent declares that “The kids are never in one-on-one [situations] unless it’s with somebody we’ve known for years.”  But another story tells us that abusers are remarkably patient – “grooming” may involve years getting to know the child, and the parents, and gaining their trust.  The mysterious website reminds us that “the greatest risk to children …[comes] from friends and family.”  So isn’t “somebody we’ve known for years” the person to fear most?

Topping it all off was an essay from someone who is not just a helicopter parent but a fleet-of-fully-armed-Blackhawks parent.  (I’m not going to name her or her eight- and six-year-old children - the kids are likely to be mortified enough in a few years) but here are some highlights:

When school friends have parties, I attend with [the children]. I know a lot of parents who drop off children at parties, in many cases because they have other children to take to other locations, or they have to run errands. [My husband] and I don't drop our children off anywhere, except for perhaps their grandparents' homes.

Perhaps?  Are grandma and grandpa suspect too?  Back to the column:

The same goes for baseball games and karate and gymnastics classes. Because one of us, fortunately, is able to always be there, my children never have to wait for a ride home and they know someone who loves and protects them is nearby.

I also do my best to get to know those who interact with our children. Friends, parents, coaches, teachers -- talking to them helps me ensure that my young children are surrounded by good people.

Unless, of course, they’re just especially good at “grooming.”

There are parents who can't attend every function with their children. … Some other parents just seem to be more trusting, leaving their children alone or with acquaintances much of the time. It's up to the rest of us out there -- parents, teachers, coaches, care-givers, medical professionals -- to keep an eye on all children, especially from dysfunctional homes, because they often are targeted by abusers.

But aren’t parents who start “keeping an eye on all children” exactly the ones we’re not supposed to trust?

Do I sometimes feel I'm being overprotective? Absolutely not. … Something must be working. A few weeks ago, my son was playing outside. He came running into the house and said he saw a stranger. I was so proud.  …

Meanwhile, that mysterious website tells us to treat absolutely everyone as a suspect – and let them know they’re suspects the minute we meet them for the first time: “Find a way to tell the adults who care for children that you and the child are educated about child sexual abuse,” the website says. “Be that direct.” 

I am not naming the site, because it’s already gotten tons of attention in the wake of Penn State and I don’t want to give it even more.  (Anyone who really wants to find it can get to it via the Binghamton stories.)

But here’s why I keep calling it mysterious: I searched the site for a long time and could come up with not one name of anyone connected with the organization.  No president.  No executive director.  No board of directors.  No indication of the credentials of those offering the advice. All the e-mail contact addresses were generic – there isn’t even a media contact. [UPDATE: DEC. 2016: In this years since this item originally was posted, this information has been added to the site.]

Yet in the wake of Penn State, newspapers all over America are accepting this site’s data and its advice, in the case of the Binghamton paper, reprinting it whole.  That’s remarkably – um – trusting.


Yes, the problem of child abuse is serious and real, and prudent precautions are in order.  But don’t believe the scare numbers.  For example, as I’ve noted before the claim that one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be sexually abused (which is the first thing you see on the home page of the mysterious website) is based on a study with a definition of abuse that can include a 19-year-old kissing a 17-year-old goodnight after a date. 

And you’d certainly never guess from the Binghamton stories that all crime in America, including child sexual abuse, has dramatically decreased in recent decades.  Yes, Jim, these aren’t the old days.  They’re better.

There is no way to seal off our children against all risk of molestation, any more than we can check the driving record of every adult who volunteers for the carpool.  And behaving like the mother in that op ed column, and following all the other paranoid advice, creates its own dangers for children. 

Dangers like:

●Raising them to cower in their homes, afraid of everyone they meet – or running home after so much as seeing a stranger nearby.

●Destroying any opportunity to build the self-confidence, self-reliance and independence they’ll need to thrive as adults.  What will our children do when we’re too old to always be there to protect them?

●Teaching them to treat normal human kindness as suspect, making it far less likely they will be able to receive such kindness – or give it.

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, has crusaded against hyper-protective parenting.  Long before Penn State, she wrote about the harm caused by the kind of paranoia on display in the Southern Tier in this column for The Wall Street Journal.  She pointed out another danger to Milwaukee Magazine media columnist Erik Gunn:

We don't help kids if we're telling them to distrust half the population.  If most people are good and your kid ever is in a dangerous situation, could they ever go to a principal at school or their father or their teacher and tell them what's going on? If nobody is to be trusted you’ve left your child without anywhere to turn.

There also is the risk of setting off another wave of panic like the “mass molestation” hysteria that destroyed the lives of hundreds of children in the 1980s amid lurid false allegations of Satanic cults lurking in day care centers. 

            And there’s one more risk: When every adult becomes afraid to show normal affection – when, like one teacher in Binghamton, they stop giving hugs and give taps on the shoulder instead – then children actually become easier prey for child molesters.

            That’s because, as the Binghamton stories point out repeatedly, molesters target children who are denied normal affection.  As child abuse researcher Dr. James Garbarino put it during the last wave of sex abuse hysteria in the 1980s:

The more you define making physical contact with kids as being extraordinary or something that makes one suspicious, the more you leave the field open to people who want to touch kids for the wrong reasons.


            Like so much that is done in the name of “child protection” the behavior described, and encouraged, in the Binghamton stories isn’t about protecting children at all – it’s about protecting parents. 
            Specifically it’s about our efforts to protect ourselves from one of the inevitable side-effects of parenthood: Worry - that constant, nagging fear that the worst will happen to our children as soon as they are out of our sight.  (Interestingly, in my own experience, this does not stop when the child becomes a young adult.)

            When our daughter was in college and wanted to spend a semester of her junior year studying in South Africa my wife and I worried – constantly.  The easy way out would have been to say no.   But we let her go, and it turned out to be one of the most important and fulfilling experiences of her life.  (We remain grateful that she did not tell us about going shark diving off Cape Town until after the fact.)

            At other times, I’m sure we’ve given in to fears when we shouldn’t have.  But putting the children first means rising above our own fears as much as we can, whenever it’s prudent.    

Anything less is not child protection, it’s adult self-indulgence.

Monday, December 12, 2011

New federal report: child abuse is down – again

Most of what the child welfare community calls “child abuse” is, in fact the confusion of family poverty with “neglect.”  This remains the single biggest problem in American child welfare, destroying thousands of families needlessly.

But, as the Associated Press is reporting today,  a new report suggests that child welfare agencies have gotten a little better at distinguishing poverty from neglect and devising smarter interventions – such as “differential response.”  As a result, even as the recession increases poverty, we are not seeing the predicted increase in “child abuse” because states are smarter about not confusing poverty itself with neglect.

The report also shows that nearly four out of five children alleged to be victims of child abuse actually are victims of false allegations.  So the last thing we need is a law forcing every American to report her or his slightest suspicion of maltreatment or risk going to jail.

            Every year since the beginning of the recession, America’s “child savers” – to use the term their 19th Century counterparts proudly gave themselves – have made ever more dire predictions about how the recession will mean more “child abuse.”  Those predictions, of course, are followed by demands to hire more caseworkers to investigate more families and throw more children into foster care.

            This week, they’ve been proven wrong again.

The federal government’s annual Child Maltreatment report was released over the weekend.  It covers the year 2010 (they always run a year behind). But once again the report reveals that there was less child abuse in America than there was the year before.

            The decrease is slight.   But the decrease is in all categories except one (about 2,900 more children, nationwide, were deemed to have suffered “emotional maltreatment.”)  So notwithstanding the hype about what the recession would do, there has been no increase in physical abuse.  And notwithstanding post-Penn State paranoia suggesting there is a child molester under every bed, there was no increase in sexual abuse either.

The recession doesn’t seem to be prompting more parents to kill their children either.  In fact, child abuse deaths went down - to the lowest level since 2006.  There are so many problems with how such deaths are reported, that I would not read too much into any change in this figure.  But it certainly doesn’t support the notion that the recession is leading to an increase in brutality.

The reason for the small decline in total child “maltreatment” is fascinating. It appears that America’s child welfare systems have gotten a little better at dealing with the biggest single problem in American child welfare: the confusion of poverty with “neglect.”


            A few things stayed the same in the 2010 report:

● For starters, the percentage of false reports remains staggering.  Seventy-nine percent of the children investigated by child protective services workers were not abused or neglected.  They were victims of false reports.  (Child savers love to claim false reports aren’t really false – but in fact, they are really false, and there’s a full discussion of that here.)  That means overloaded CPS workers spent nearly four-fifths of their time spinning their wheels – and harming families with traumatic investigations. 

Needless to say, few things could be dumber than making that even worse by turning everyone into a mandated reporter, required to tell CPS their slightest suspicions of child abuse, as some are suggesting in response to post-Penn State paranoia.

            ● Among the reports that are “substantiated” (which typically means only that a caseworker thinks there is slightly more evidence than not that the child was “abused”) well over three-quarters of the “abuse” cases are not abuse – they’re neglect.

            Because definitions of neglect are so broad, and so vague, neglect can include some extremely serious harm – like deliberately starving a child or locking him in a closest for weeks at a time.  But since the typical definition of neglect – lack of adequate food, clothing, shelter or supervision – also is a perfect definition of poverty, the typical neglect case is usually more like this one from Houston – in which the children were taken solely because the parents lacked adequate housing.

            So of course, if you define poverty itself as “child abuse” then child abuse will go up during a recession.  Fortunately, the Child Maltreatment report suggests that child welfare agencies aren’t doing that quite so often.


            The report attributes the decline largely to the growth in “differential response” (also known as “alternative response”) something discussed often on this blog.  It’s an option with a proven track record for reducing trauma for families and improving child safety.

            Differential response gives agencies an option in between “all” – a full-scale traumatic investigation of a family – and “nothing” – deciding the report doesn’t rise to the level of abuse and not looking into it at all.  As a result, it both narrows and widens the net of intervention into families.

            Under differential response, when a case is believed to be low risk, a specialized team of workers is sent out to do an “assessment” and offer voluntary help to the family instead of a coercive investigation.  In some states and localities, the child protective services agency does this, in others the cases are assigned to a private agency.

            Child savers hate differential response.  After all, they say, how can you be absolutely, positively, 110 percent certain it’s really a low risk case?

You can’t.  But differential response does not preclude a finding of abuse.  If the caseworker offering help discovers things are worse than expected and there really is abuse or neglect she still substantiates it.  (Where differential response cases are handled by private agency workers, they report any actual abuse they find back to child protective services.)

In addition, if you send out overloaded caseworkers to “investigate” anything and everything they won’t have time to do the job well, and they’ll miss many more cases of children in real danger – even as they traumatize many more innocent families.


            And unlike foster care, and mandatory reporting, differential response is evidence-based.  A new review of the literature, released last month found that 23 separate evaluations of differential response found no compromise of child safety.  Every evaluation found lower rates of subsequent reports alleging abuse for families diverted to a differential response assessment.

            The Child Maltreatment report found that a lot of the decrease in “child abuse” cases probably is attributable to the fact that more and more child welfare systems are using differential response for low-risk cases – which often are the very cases in which poverty is confused with neglect.

            So while the recession definitely is causing more poverty, differential response is helping some child welfare agencies avoid confusing poverty with neglect as often. 

            Of course, there is still at least one notable exception: New York City where, under the regressive leadership of John Mattingly, when he ran the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, the city refused even to pilot differential response.  At one point Mattingly promised to do it, then reneged.  The tragedy of his broken promise is aptly illustrated by this case. Perhaps his successor, Robert Richter, will be more moved by evidence than ideology and give differential response a try.

            It’s needed now more than ever – after all, we’re in a recession.

UPDATE, DEC. 13: Universal forced child abuse reporting too extreme even for hearing witnesses

This assessment of today’s Senate subcommittee hearing is based on watching the hearing online and on the witnesses prepared testimony

            The good news: The idea of forcing every American to report any suspicion of child abuse or risk jail is so extreme that even the most extreme of the hand-picked witnesses who testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing today couldn’t stomach it.

            Neither Frank Cervone of Philadelphia’s Support Center for Child Advocates nor Teresa Huizar of the National Children’s Alliance was willing to endorse the concept – though Cervone came depressingly close, and Huizar, who runs a trade association for child advocacy centers, seemed to indicate she’d be more receptive to the idea if it came with more money for child advocacy centers.  No other witness endorsed it in prepared testimony either, though one, Dr. Robert Block, seemed to waffle in response to a questions.

            The bad news:

            ● Cervone took a classic cheap shot in the classic child saver “just sayin’” way:  He said he didn’t actually know that “differential response” was the reason some advocates and doctors claim to have seen “some serious cases of physical abuse go by without intervention” but… 

            Cervone neglected to mention that there are now 23 separate studies showing that differential response does not compromise child safety.  Indeed, all 23 found that repeat reports of maltreatment declined for families using this option.

            And, of course, it’s not that Cervone is against differential response.  On the contrary, he’s all for it.  But…  (Because in child welfare, when you want to stifle innovation you never say no, you just “yes, but…” it to death.)

            ● Cervone also seemed to think he was testifying before the Pennsylvania Legislature – raising a series of Pennsylvania-specific issues in his written statement, and repeating grossly-misleading claims about the rate at which Pennsylvania investigates and substantiates child abuse.  NCCPR responded to those false claims in this op ed column for the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

            ● Huizar proposed the second most common all-propose child saver answer to everything, more “training.” (#1, of course, is “more money,” which she also proposed.) But training is no substitute for due process.  She also wants to “educate all adults on the signs of abuse.”  But given that, at some point, the list of such signs she touts could encompass almost every child in America any such program would need to be designed by someone other than Huizar and her allies.

          ● Huizar made some sound points concerning the annual survey of child abuse conducted by the federal government.  Responding to that survey is one kind of “reporting” that should be mandatory – right now it isn’t.  And there is a need to standardize many definitions, not just the ones Huizar mentions in her testimony.


         ● The award for statistics abuse goes to Dr. Robert Block of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  He’s the one who cited the study purporting to show that one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys is a victim of child sexual abuse – the study discussed in NCCPR’s Blog on Youth Today; the one with a definition of abuse that can include a 19-year-old kissing a 17-year-old goodnight after a date. 

Block mischaracterizes the study as asking about “abuse.”  In fact, part of the reason the numbers are so high is that the study didn’t ask about abuse, but about sexual experiences.  An earlier questionnaire, given to the same group, which did use the term “abuse” produced much lower figures.  (There are good reasons to ask both ways.  There are victims of genuine abuse who don’t realize or can’t face that the experience was abusive. But just as using the term abuse is likely to produce a figure that’s too low, not using it contributes to a figure that’s too high.) 

          ● Block also discusses official reports of child abuse in a way that leaves the impression that every report is true.  In fact, nearly four-fifths of reports are false. (Although child-savers love to claim the reports aren’t really false, they really are, for reasons explained here.)

          ● Block seems to view with alarm the large proportion of doctors who don’t report.  It never seems to occur to Block and others like him that what Prof. Gary Melton of Clemson University calls this “rampant civil disobedience” is because, as Melton writes  “professionals …  are convinced that children are worse off as a result of reports to CPS” – and they are right.   That would mean, of course, that mandatory reporting should be curbed, not expanded.

          ● Block even may have a problem with the fact that some states don’t define things like lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter as “neglect” if the parents can’t afford such things.  He doesn’t actually say this is bad, he just lists it among inconsistencies in state laws.  (But in any event, he needn’t worry – nobody pays attention to those provisions in the states that have them.)

Block’s solutions boil down to: Give doctors more money and give doctors more power.


Erin Sullivan Sutton, whose title at the Minnesota Department of Human Services is “assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services for Child Safety and Permanency,
Child Support Enforcement, Community Partnerships and Child Care Services, Management Operations, Transitional Support Quality Services, Office of Enterprise Technology-Transition Support Systems and Transition to Economic Stability” – said a lot of great things about how well Minnesota treats families who come to the attention of child protective services.

The comments would be more persuasive but for the fact that Minnesota tears apart families at a rate more than 75 percent above the national average, and has the worst record in the nation for taking away Native American children.  (The good news: Minnesota used to be even worse; they really have made good use of differential response, for example.  They might do even better, but Sullivan Sutton probably has to spend a lot of time memorizing her job title.)

POST ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DECEMBER 13, 2011 at about 2:00PM (post time below appears there only so that this post will appear on the blog below the post about the latest child abuse data from the federal government)

Child abuse in America: The paranoia express reaches the U.S. Senate

Tomorrow a Senate subcommittee holds a hearing called “Breaking the Silence on Child Abuse: Protection, Prevention, Intervention, and Deterrence.”

As is often the case with Congressional hearings this isn’t really about helping the Senators learn anything. The witnesses have been chosen to reinforce the biases of the person who asked for the hearing, Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey.  Casey is pushing one of the bills that would force every American to report any suspicion of child abuse to authorities. The Family Defense Center has prepared a full analysis of this bill and NCCPR has a briefing paper on our website concerning the harm of such legislation.

The hearing is likely to start off well.  The lead witness is Sheldon Kennedy, a former professional hockey player who repeatedly was abused by a junior hockey league coach when he was a teenager.  As I’ve often noted, the problem of child abuse is serious and real, and we need to hear from victims with the courage to come forward.

The problem is how Kennedy’s story is likely to be taken out of context.  Other witnesses include Teresa Huizar who heads a trade association for Child Advocacy Centers.  In theory such centers are supposed to do careful, objective interviews with alleged victims.  But a disturbing proportion of the fear-mongering op ed columns in the wake of Penn State – the ones with the baseless statistic about the prevalence of sexual abuse – are coming from such centers.  Huizar herself pushes an absurd list of supposed symptoms of sexual abuse, symptoms which include: “changes in school performance” “using drugs or alcohol” and “lack[ing] sufficient clothing for the weather”  followed by the admonition (in the pdf version): “If you see the signs, bring your child to a doctor or call the police."

Huizar’s group is one of the few to join in the most irresponsible campaign of all, one so extreme even the Child Welfare League of America and similar groups won’t take part: Michael Petit’s festival of distorted data in support of diverting $3 billion to $5 billion in scarce federal child welfare funds into hiring more child abuse investigators to tear apart more families.  (Petit is the one who infamously said at a previous hearing that the states that do best at protecting children have “smaller, whiter populations.”)

Also testifying is Frank Cervone, who runs an organization that provides lawyers to represent children’s “best interests” in Philadelphia.  (The lawyers do not advocate for what the child wants – unless it also happens to be whatever the lawyer thinks is best, which usually seems to be prolonging foster care).  While the majority of cases in Philadelphia and nationwide end in reunification, of the 11 cases cited on Cervone’s website as examples of their brilliant work, only four end in reunification – and in three of those it appears that Cervone’s lawyers primarily worked to delay that reunification.  In one case, for example Cervone brags that his lawyer demanded and got “rigorous standards” for reunification.  There is not a word about helping the parents meet those standards.

In Philadelphia (as in most places) child welfare agency chiefs come and go, but Frank Cervone is always there.  He’s been around for 30 years.  He’s the Godsource on these issues for Philadelphia media.  His influence probably is one of  the main reasons Philadelphia tears apart proportionately more families every year than any other large American city.


            Meanwhile, groups that really ought to know better, like the Children’s Defense Fund and the Center for Law and Social Policy have jumped on the force-everyone-to-report bandwagon.

            Rutledge Q. Hutson of CLASP led the efforts to “Yes, but…” to death legislation to restore the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services to offer waivers from federal funding restrictions that limit huge amounts of money to funding foster care – and nothing else.

Hutson and the rest of the “yes, but…” brigade failed, but they succeeded in attaching a whole series of strings involving lots of burdensome, largely pointless, paperwork and reporting requirements.  “These new reporting and tracking requirements are crucial,Hutson told “We need to know what happens to the child,” she says. (In fact, every waiver already has a requirement for a full outside evaluation). 

In contrast, its been nearly 50 years since every state adopted its first mandatory reporting law.  And in all that time there has been not one, single study showing that it actually helps protect children.  Yet while Rutledge Q. Hutson demands that supporters of waivers dot every i and cross every t on a ton of paperwork and make sure everything is evaluated, Rutledge Q. Hutson wants to force everyone to report their slightest suspicion of child abuse or risk going to jail based on no evidence whatsoever.

As a report from the federal government’s National Research Council puts it: 

Mandatory reporting requirements were adopted without evidence of their effectiveness; no reliable study has yet demonstrated their positive or negative effects on the health and well-being of children at risk of maltreatment, their parents and caregivers and service providers.

            So it’s no wonder the witness includes not even one child welfare scholar – not even one of those who favor massive coercive intervention into families.  Because even they can’t stomach universal forced reporting.


To get a sense of why the scholarly community is not on board, consider this evaluation from 2004, by Prof. Gary Melton of Clemson University, published in a journal founded by the father of mandatory reporting, and the man credited with “rediscovering” child abuse in 1962, Dr. C. Henry Kempe.

Here are some excerpts:

Notwithstanding the charitable motives of the system’s founders, however, the evidence is overwhelming that many of the catastrophic problems in contemporary child protection work in the United States are a direct product of the system’s design. ...

[I]n the United States and numerous other jurisdictions that have copied the US model, policymakers maintain a child protection system that is now known to lack a grounding in valid empirical assumptions and indeed to have terrible unintended effects. ...

The assumption early in the history of the modern child protection system was that the problem of child maltreatment was reducible to “syndromes”—in effect, that abusive and neglecting parents were either very sick or very evil and that they thus could be appropriately characterized as “those people” who were fundamentally different from ourselves.  Although such cases do occur, they are relatively rare. Most cases involve neglect (Administration on Children and Families, 2003). In my conversations with several senior physicians who have long worked on child protection teams at major medical centers in various US regions, all have said that they very rarely encounter the severe battering that Kempe et al. (1962) described. ...

In diagnosing “chronic and critical multiple organ failure” within the child protection system, the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (1990, p. 2) made clear that  ... the recurring crisis in the child protection system is the product of errors in design—specifically, making mandated reporting and investigation the centerpieces of the system ...
[Emphasis added.]

[T]he threat of reporting probably deters many families from seeking help. The act of reporting leads to disruption of treatment in families in approximately one-fourth of cases among families already receiving mental health services (Levine & Doueck, 1995)....

It is plausible, for example, that health professionals’ involvement in mandated reporting compromises their own or their clients’ perception of them as helpers. Further, the rampant civil disobedience of mandated reporting laws by professionals who are convinced that children are worse off as a result of reports to CPS (Kalichman, 1999; Melton et al., 1995, and citations therein) may diminish their respect for legal policy in other contexts.  …

Both common sense and empirical research lead naturally to the conclusion that mandated reporting is a bankrupt policy. The assumptions on which the system was built are now known to be plainly erroneous. Further, the current system appears to have paradoxical effects. It has had clearly negative side effects, some of which probably adversely affect children’s safety.  ... Those countries without the US-style child protection system should develop other models. [Emphasis added].

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Child abuse in America: True stories of false reports

From the Family Defense Center in Chicago, a reminder of just how much harm can be done by false allegations of child abuse.  Sixteen specific cases, some of them called in by “mandated reporters.”  They are a reminder of the enormous harm that comes from urging – or even requiring - anyone and everyone to report anything and everything.

Here are four of the cases.  As you read them consider not only the harm to the families falsely accused but also the fact that all the time, money and effort spent on these cases was stolen from finding children in real danger:

● A day care teacher followed the practice of other teachers in the center of giving back rubs to help the children fall asleep. The mother of a four-year-old told the day care center director that her daughter told her that the teacher had “touched” her daughter’s booty. The teacher was fired and forced out of his home for 11 months. A hearing eventually found the investigation to be “sloppy at best” for failing to interview other teachers to determine that abuse could not have occurred in the open classroom with 16 children and for failing to discover that the touching was a back rub.

● A school nurse called the Hotline on a mother because the 10-year-old child reported that she was required to clean up after the family cat and was being forced to go into a dark basement that was locked. During the investigation, the child protection investigator failed to observe that the basement the child referred to was where the cat’s food and litter box were kept, and that there were no locks on its doors. The indicated finding was dropped after the mother filed her appeal and retained legal counsel.

 ● A toddler who was learning to walk fell and was then found to have a wrist fracture. An emergency room doctor, without consulting any orthopedist, made a Hotline call. Later, several orthopedists opined that abuse was an implausible explanation because the only way to the wrist fracture could have occurred was through a commonplace fall. The child was taken from both parents involuntarily and placed in temporary custody of DCFS. After a nearly four-month separation, the State’s Attorney voluntarily dismissed the case after child abuse experts agreed with the orthopedists that abuse was not a plausible explanation for the fracture.

● A mother went to the police after her ex-boyfriend made a verbal threat while the mother was holding their 9-month-old daughter. The police called the Hotline and though the mother obtained an order of protection against her ex-boyfriend and kicked him out of her home, DCFS indicated a finding of neglect against the mother. When the ex-boyfriend later came to the home intimidating the mother, she was scared to call the police for fear that she would again be reported to DCFS.  After a full hearing, the indicated finding against the mother was reversed.

The full list of sixteen cases is on the Family Defense Center website here. FDC also has a complete analysis of one of the bills introduced in Congress to make everyone a "mandated reporter."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Foster care in America: New video has the stories ABC News won’t show you

Did you see that program about fairy tales on ABC?

No, not Once Upon a Time.  On this fairy tale program the evil sorcerers dispense needless psychiatric medication to foster children – and on that point the program is on the mark.

But the wicked witches and other villains almost always are children’s parents.  The knights in shining armor and prince and princess charmings are always foster parents or adoptive parents – or they run residential treatment centers.  And while the villains come in all colors, the heroes are always “snow white.”

I am referring, of course, to ABC News' latest program about foster care and exercise in child exploitation.  Our full response is on our website here.

Fortunately, another video was just released that tells the stories ABC News systematically left out, in its current program and so often in the past.  It’s not quite as slick as the ABC News program – but it’s a lot more real.  It’s from the Brooklyn Family Defense Project:

BFDP Fall Benefit Video, 11/17/11 from brooklyn family defense project on Vimeo.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Foster care in South Dakota: Federal lawyers may help SD tribes enforce ICWA

Nearly half a century after Robert F. Kennedy sent federal marshals to enforce civil rights in Mississippi, the federal government is considering taking a similar step to enforce the rights of Native American children in South Dakota to remain safely in their own homes, free from needless foster care.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is considering sending federal lawyers to South Dakota to help tribes enforce the rights of their children under the Indian Child Welfare Act.  The routine violation of those rights was exposed in a three-part NPR series in October.

BIA is considering this major enforcement action in response to a suggestion by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA).  Moran wrote to BIA after hearing the NPR stories.   This link goes to the BIA’s full response to Moran.

BIA also plans to convene a summit early in 2012 in South Dakota bringing together all “stakeholders” including the tribes, the South Dakota Department of Social Services, the South Dakota Office of Tribal Relations and others.

It speaks volumes about the extent to which South Dakota is harming Native American children, and violating federal law, that BIA is considering such a forceful response to NPR’s excellent reporting.  And it’s good news not only for Native American children but for all South Dakota children.

As I’ve noted in a previous post to this Blog, when it comes to child welfare, South Dakota is among the worst by almost any measure.  It takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation, it places children in the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions – at one of the highest rates in the nation, and it tears apart Native American families at one of the highest rates in the nation.  In short, South Dakota hit the trifecta of child welfare failure.

South Dakota tears apart families at the third highest rate in the country, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  This obscene rate of removal does nothing to keep children safe.  On the contrary, states that take away proportionately far fewer children are nationally- recognized as leaders in keeping children safe. 

Of course anything that curbs the blatant bias and the take-the-child-and-run mentality that dominate South Dakota child welfare helps Native American children avoid the enormous trauma of needless foster care.  But curbing needless removal of children also gives workers more time to find children in real danger – and that makes all South Dakota children safer.

NCCPR commends BIA for considering this bold move.  We hope they follow through.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Child abuse at Penn State: The myth of one-in-four / one-in-six

In the weeks since Penn State, one statistic keeps turning up in the  media.  It’s scary, it’s ubiquitous, it’s meant to stampede people into things like universal mandatory reporting – and it’s wrong. 

It’s the one about how, supposedly, one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be victims of child sexual abuse. 

Ever wonder why, in all the scores of news stories, editorials and op ed columns where this stat turns up nobody seems to cite an actual study?  Maybe it’s because of what the study actually reveals.