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.