Monday, December 12, 2011

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)