Child abuse investigations: fibbing and fudging are wrong

Daniel Pollack

Fibbing: A trivial act of lying or being deliberately unclear. Perhaps a derivative of the word ‘fable.’

Fibbing and fudging accusations are rampant: schools do it regarding graduation rates, job applicants do it on resumes, “respected” researchers have been caught doing it in the academic, medical and scientific communities, governments and economists are accused of unethical number crunching.

Child abuse and neglect investigations are all about truth-seeking. And yet, child protection workers are frequently in a quandary – they must resist the strong tendency to shade the truth. In clear cut cases of abuse or neglect their job is not difficult. Indeed, their finding of ‘substantiated,’ ‘founded,’ ‘indicated,’ or ‘confirmed’ is accompanied by the adrenaline rush of truly being the defender of children the worker always hoped to be. When the investigation is plainly one of battling spouses calling in fictitious accusations, these cases too are not difficult to discern. Sadly, the children are being used as ping-pong balls, but the disposition of the case is clearly ‘unsubstantiated,’ ‘unfounded,’ ‘not indicated,’ or ‘unconfirmed.’

Many child abuse/neglect investigations are foggy. Let’s admit it. The worker is presented with evidence which mostly falls into the gray area of uncertainty and dubious. This is when there is a temptation to engage in fibbing, when workers may be swayed to put their thumb on the scale for the sake of, of what? The worker figures that he or she will engage in a minor violation of the truth for the sake of – not a greater truth – but of greater personal insulation against liability.

They unconsciously, or even consciously, tilt the investigation so that the ‘evidence’ will artificially lean in one direction or the other, either ‘unfounded’ or ‘substantiated.’ In part this happens because in a number of states (e.g. New Jersey) the worker has no middle category to select – the disposition must be either ‘unfounded’ or ‘substantiated.’ In those states where there is a middle category, workers may tilt one way or the other because they do not want to open themselves to liability in the event their assessment turns out to be incorrect. They then decide the case is to be ‘substantiated,’ and by golly, they are going to supply the evidence to prove it. And if they are going to rule the case ‘unfounded,’ they leave no quarter for others to second guess their assessment. The result is a display of nimble dexterity. By emphasizing the appropriate indicators, voilà, the worker is able to steer clear of the dreaded gray and murky area where real truth is not so easy to discern.

Why are we in this quandary? I believe a key reason is that we are constantly viewing child abuse and neglect against a background of potential liability instead of the background of healthy child and family development. This tendency to fib represents a profound miscalculation in the way the public believes investigations are taking place, and consequently, such decision making behavior brings with it far-reaching reverberations. When investors are deciding whether or not to buy a particular stock, they need to know that they can trust that the value of securities they purchase is based on information that is fairly advertised and diligently scrutinized. Whatever sincere debates we have about child abuse investigations, they are a meaningless exercise if we do not have valid data. Indeed, a debate with faulty or fudged data is positively dangerous. The unknown and hidden trouble is that the data simply may not support the assertions being made. Ultimately, we cannot fix problems if we don't know about them.

There is no doubt that public confidence in the child protection system is an important social objective; without such confidence we risk an erosion of support for the departments of human services and the rule of law they represent. Consequently, there is no excuse for the deliberate or unconscious suppression or fudging of child abuse investigation evidence. Rather than confront some very real investigation issues, too many workers, supervisors, and administrators have chosen to bury them beneath skewed data. Such manipulation gives the impression that the child protection system is in better shape than it really is. At the same time we are trumpeting the need for correctly assessing child abuse accusations as a national priority, we must admit that using flawed data will not enable us to accurately track the real risk of harm to children.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former U.S. Senator and sage of the human services system said: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” In the final analysis, neither exaggerating nor minimizing will help; we simply need the truth.

Daniel Pollack is a professor at Yeshiva University’s School of Social Work in New York City and a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases. He can be reached at dpollack@yu.edu. This article originally appeared in Policy & Practice, 67(6), 20.

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