Tuesday, May 30, 2023

No, 1,000 Texas children won’t die if the state replaces anonymous reporting with confidential reporting

 A bill to replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting
has passed the Texas Legislature.

UPDATE, JUNE 20, 2023: The governor signed the bill!

I have written often about how the entire debate over what to do about child welfare has been poisoned by “health terrorism,” the misrepresentation of the true nature and scope of a problem in the name of “raising awareness.”  I did not make up the term. It comes from a group that admits to having practiced health terrorism for decades, Prevent Child Abuse America.  (They say they’ve stopped, the evidence suggests otherwise.) 

In Texas, masters of health terrorism include the people at Texans Care for Children. When it comes to children’s issues, they’re also the “Godsource” for Texas media  – whatever they say is taken as Gospel. A classic example of health terrorism – and how easily media are suckered by it – can be seen in a recent story from The Texas Tribune. 

The story deals with a bill passed by the Texas Legislature and now awaiting action by Gov. Greg Abbott. [UPDATE: He signed it!]  The bill would largely replace anonymous reporting of suspicions of child abuse and neglect with confidential reporting – that is, the accused still wouldn’t know who accused them, but the state family police agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare agency”) would.  This both would curb the use of false reports as a way to harass families, and free up more time for workers to find children in real danger.  It would make all Texas children safer. 

If anything, the bill is too weak. It specifies that if the operator at the state child abuse hotline can’t persuade the accuser to leave her or his name, the operator is to tell the accuser s/he remains free to call law enforcement anonymously – and if law enforcement thinks the report is credible they can refer it to the family police for investigation. 

But watch how Texans Care for Children uses health terrorism, to distort the issue, and how the Texas Tribune helps them. According to the story: 

In 2022, there were 12,473 anonymous calls to the state and about 1,000 of those calls resulted in a substantiated finding of abuse or neglect, said Kate Murphy, director of child protection policy with the advocacy group Texans Care for Children. 

“Unfortunately, if this bill were to pass, those 1,000 children would be left to continue experiencing abuse and neglect or worse,” she said on Thursday, hours before the bill passed.

“Leaving children in danger can have disastrous consequences. Last year, 182 Texas kids died of abuse and neglect.” 

By the time Murphy and the Tribune are done, piling leaps of logic on faulty data, it’s no wonder readers might come away thinking “Oh my God, if Gov. Abbott signs this bill 1,000 children will die!”

 That’s how health terrorism works. 

What Texans Care for Children didn’t say

To understand all the misrepresentations we need to go back and parse Murphy’s claims point by point:

 Here’s what Murphy does not say, and the Tribune does not explain: 

1.     Substantiated means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form guessing it is slightly more likely than not that something that meets Texas’ definitions of abuse and neglect occurred. 

2.     Of those 1,000 cases, it is likely that 770 did not involve sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse 

S    So what the numbers actually show is that, of all anonymous reports alleging abuse or neglect in Texas in 2022, 92% were flat-out false.  That means caseworkers handling these cases spent 92% of their time harassing innocent families, inflicting trauma on their children – and wasting time that could have been used to find children in real danger.

      Add in the cases that were “substantiated” but involved neither physical nor sexual abuse, and the figure rises to more than 98%.  That’s 98% of workers’ time spent on cases that are nothing like the horror stories.

      Now consider the leap of logic behind this claim:

 “Unfortunately, if this bill were to pass, those 1,000 children would be left to continue experiencing abuse and neglect or worse,” she said on Thursday, hours before the bill passed. Last year, 182 Texas kids died of abuse and neglect.” 

Keep in mind that if this bill becomes law, the accused still won’t know who accused them, only the family police will know.  So what Murphy is saying, and the Tribune never questions, is that people who sincerely believe children are in danger of horrific abuse won’t come forward if they merely have to give their names to the family police – nor will they take advantage of the loophole allowing them to report anonymously to law enforcement. 

Journalists in particular should be skeptical about this one.  Reporters deal with anonymous sources all the time. Policies vary among news organizations, but typically, when a source demands anonymity, the reporter will say: “I will not put your name in the story, but I need to know who you are and my editor has to know who you are.”  In my own experience as a reporter, almost always, whistleblowers coming forward out of a sincere concern about some sort of injustice will agree to those terms.  With children’s lives at stake - and that’s exactly Murphy’s claim – why does she think people won’t do the same? 

As for those 182 children who died – that happened under the current system, which allows anonymous reporting.  Some of them probably died because Texas caseworkers are so desperately overloaded with all those false reports -- and anonymous reports are those most likely to be false, -- that they didn’t have time to investigate any case carefully. 

It also would have been helpful had the Tribune reminded readers of the report issued in 2009 by a liberal Texas think tank that used to be Texas media’s Godsource on these issues, a think tank whose then director used to crusade for tearing apart more families.  That stopped after they studied child abuse fatalities in Texas and found that none of the traditional investigative and "police" functions of child protective services contribute anything to raising or lowering the rate of child abuse fatalities.  You’ll never guess what does – actually, you will. 

No system can save every endangered child.  But which is more likely to lead to a child dying: Requiring people who report child abuse to disclose who they are to the family police?  Or continuing to force caseworkers to drown in a tsunami of false reports and poverty cases that occupy up to 98% of their time? 

If only the Texas Tribune had thought to ask that question.

As the Dallas Morning News pointed out in an editorial about the bill:

It is no secret that [Family Police Agency] employees are understaffed, overworked and, in some cases, undertrained, and that the agency bobs from crisis to crisis in a sea of chaos that victimizes children caught in the system. 

Oh wait: the Dallas Morning News used this as a reason to oppose the bill -- which just goes to show the extent to which overexposure to health terrorism can addle your brain.