But, of course, actually doing something about it is another matter
Every state has some sort of child abuse “hotline” that people can call to report alleged abuse and neglect. Every state allows such calls to be made anonymously. And many professionals are “mandated reporters” required to report their slightest suspicion of alleged abuse or neglect.
There is no enforceable penalty for a false report and plenty of penalty for failure to report – even though in the half century since the first mandatory reporting laws passed there has not been a single study documenting their effectiveness, and some one-time supporters of such laws have had second thoughts.
“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.”
The result is predictable: False allegations inundate the hotlines. Some are malicious – often from schools striking back at parents demanding better education for their children. Others are CYA referrals from mandated reporters terrified not to report.
HuffPost and the Hechinger Report documented the nationwide problem last year.
The first step is admitting you have a problem
But there is something new in New Mexico. For the first time that I know of, a state child protective services agency actually admits there is a problem.
The admission comes in an excellent story by Ed Williams of the nonprofit New Mexico news site Searchlight New Mexico. That state only centralized its hotline in 2011. But, Williams reports that officials at the state Children Youth and Families Department
… have been raising concerns over malicious use of the abuse and neglect reporting system ever since … As soon as the phones started ringing at the Statewide Central Intake call center in 2011 … [r]eports started coming in that were clearly false, and often malicious or retaliatory in nature.
"Every hour we spend sorting out false and malicious allegations is an hour taken from a frightened child who truly needs our help," said then-Secretary Yolanda Deines, during a press conference shortly after the hotline’s launch.
"Please find a healthier way to express your anger, and don't take time away from a child who might be in danger," Deines said.
Eight years later, CYFD employees say that the Statewide Central Intake office, or SCI, continues to receive malicious reports on an almost daily basis, most commonly from school staff and divorced couples in the midst of custody battles. A lack of data, however, has led to questions within CYFD about the frequency of such calls.
“We don’t want our agency to be used as a mean guard dog” to bully parents, said SCI manager Paul Williams. “But I see it all day long.”
It isn’t just parents who are bullied, however. In the case at the center of Williams’ story, from the small town of Carrizozo, a child was being bullied. Other children in the family allegedly were denied their rights to special education. Their mother, Christy Cartwright, did what any good mother would do: She raised hell.
The school allegedly did what any lousy school would do: They weaponized child protective services and used it to bully the entire family.
The school principal denies that the calls were retaliation. But he also denies that bullying even exists in his school! Here’s what he said during a taped meeting with Cartwright:
“Everything’s ‘bully, bully, bully,’ that’s all you ever hear about. I’m telling you for a fact, there is no bullying at this school.”
Indeed, Williams reports, in one of their calls to the hotline, the school alleged that Cartwright was “brain washing the children to say they are bullied at school.”
(Oddly, this principal has yet to be recognized by national education leaders for having the only school in America in which there is absolutely no bullying.)
This case is not isolated. As Williams writes:
Searchlight New Mexico has spoken with 28 parents who shared personal stories of retaliation by school employees. Almost invariably, those instances of alleged retaliation followed arguments with the school over special education programs or student behavior problems in class.
Huffpost and The Hechinger Report found much the same.
But while CYFD is willing to admit the problem, they’re not actually willing to do anything about it.
“There is a potential for the system to be abused, and CYFD could take a proactive role,” said CYFD Deputy Secretary Terry Locke. “But the tradeoff is that we might dissuade people from making [valid] calls. The question I have is, have these calls been enough of an issue for us that we would consider an action like that?” [Emphasis added.]
This is worth examining in detail.
First, a child abuse investigation is not a benign act. At a minimum, children endure the trauma of strangers coming to their home, asking about the most intimate aspects of their lives, turning the house upside down, and leaving everyone in fear. If the allegation is physical or sexual abuse, the children may be subjected to a strip search and an intrusive medical examination. If anyone else did that, it would be sexual abuse.
So even one needless hotline call such call should be “enough of an issue” to prompt action, just as even one case of child abuse should be “enough of an issue” to warrant action.
Second, as CYFD comes close to admitting, the bigger risk when it comes to missing real abuse is all that time wasted on false reports.
There are solutions
Whether the harm to children is inflicted by a small public school in rural New Mexico or an elite private school in New York City, if child protective services agencies really wanted to stop the institutionalized bullying of children and families by schools and others who abuse their hotlines there are several steps they could persuade state legislatures to take:
● Replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting. If a teacher or principal or anyone else who may have a grudge or someone who simply may be clueless wants to claim that a parent is abusing a child, that person should be required to give the hotline operator his or her name and verifiable contact information. 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. It also will allow hotlines to detect patterns of false or malicious reporting, screen out such reports – and bring charges when necessary. The law also should allow the accused to go to a judge and explain why s/he feels the family 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.
● Eliminate mandatory reporting. Let professionals use their professional judgment concerning when to report alleged child abuse. As noted above, there is not a shred of evidence that mandatory reporting laws actually have made children safer. And the fact that more than 80 percent of reports nationwide are false suggests strong evidence that mandatory reporting is inundating the system, stealing time from finding children in real danger.
● Eliminate the category of “educational neglect.” A majority of states actually don’t have such a category in their child abuse statutes – they treat the failure of children to make it to school as exactly what it is, an educational problem for which school districts should be responsible. A decade ago the highly-regarded Vera Institute of Justice found that overwhelmingly, these are low-risk cases, and it's idiotic to waste the time of child protective services dealing with them. In addition to wasting the time of CPS workers, sending a CPS worker to the door only makes the family defensive and makes it harder to solve whatever problem may be causing absenteeism. Details on the findings are in this post.
● If you don’t have the guts to do the first three, at least change the messaging. Training for mandated reporters should include not just what to report but also what not to report. And instead of constantly telling anyone and everyone to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd, urge people to report only when they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect.
Read the full story about the Cartwright family in Searchlight New Mexico