Monday, December 12, 2011

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].