A Critical Look At The Child Welfare System
Child Abuse Reporting: Variety of Reports
In considering reports from all sources, social work professor Chris Mouzakitis concluded: "Much of what is reported is unworthy of followup."
A surprising number of the over 3 million annual reports aren't even reports of abuse or neglect. What are these calls that so many of the states screen out, and from where do they originate?
"It is disturbing that no one is able to say how many accusations of sexual and physical abuse of children are incorrect," wrote Third District Supervisor Susan Golding to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. "National authorities have estimated that erroneous diagnoses of child abuse are made in five to ten percent of cases."
Susan Golding also noted considerable evidence that false and malicious allegations are frequently used as a tool of harassment:
Over the past three months I have seen too much evidence that false accusations of child abuse and neglect may be being used as harassment. Often this is where the problem originates. Sometimes this occurs in custody disputes, through our concilitory process. Neighbor against neighbor. Foster parents against parents. The scenarios are numerous -- some quite complex. These false accusations are flooding the already overburdened hot-line system...
Golding suggested that anonymous reporting ought to be reviewed, lessening the chance of individuals using it anonymously "to harass and falsely accuse for personal reasons."
Few unfounded reports are made maliciously, according to Douglas Besharov, original director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Notes Besharov: "Studies of sexual abuse reports, for example, suggest that, at most, from 4 to 10 percent of these reports are knowingly false."
Assuming this to be an accurate estimate of the overall percentage of deliberately malicious reports, this small a percentage of the overall total would put the number of such reports in the range of 120,000 to over 300,000 per year.
Of the reports actually passed on for investigations, malicious or intentionally false reports constituted about 4 percent of the unsubstantiated investigations in 1995. But this figure is provided by only five states which endeavor to maintain this statistic.
The New York State Registry may provide a more reliable estimate, with 85,000 of the 486,000 calls it received in 1994 having been determined to be prank calls, many of which had to be treated as genuine until proven otherwise.
Extending the ratio of 17.5 percent to the national total, this would amount to 542,500 prank calls among the national estimate of 3.1 million calls.
There is some anecdotal evidence which would suggest the actual figure to be higher, and that those reports made with malicious intent are likely to involve the most serious allegations.
In a housing project in Massachusetts, for example, a teenager explained: "One thing people do here, if they don't like their neighbor, is to call the child protective."
In Pennsylvania, out of eighteen reports made by landlords in 1988, none was indicated, suggesting that the child abuse hotlines may be used as a tool of harassment in landlord-tenant disputes.
Harassment calls would appear to be quite common. For example, a Missouri committee determined that approximately 15 percent of all calls in the Springfield area were harassment calls.
"The current flood of unfounded reports is overwhelming the limited resources of child protective agencies," argues Douglas Besharov, founding director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.
"For fear of missing even one abused child, workers perform extensive investigations of vague and apparently unsupported reports," disrupting hundreds of thousands of innocent families each year.
Notes the former NCCAN director: "Even when a home visit based on an anonymous report turns up no evidence of maltreatment, they usually interview neighbors, school teachers, and day care personnel to make sure that the child is not abused." And, even repeated anonymous and unfounded reports do not necessarily prevent a further investigation.
"It's no secret that four to six of every ten cases are closed by CPS after initial investigation. The public knows that, the media know that, and so do the politicians," writes Larry Brown of the American Humane Association.
"If CPS is chasing windmills in up to half of the reported cases, something is very wrong."
What is the impact of the deliberately malicious reports that are accepted for investigation? Former New York City caseworker and Turning Stones author Marc Parent explains:
Once in a while, cases generated by anonymous callers proved to be true, but not usually. Reported crack houses with children locked in small crates covered in bruises and urine often turned out to be buildings with doormen and well-cared-for children tucked tightly in bed. The toll of the false reports was exhausting. It was sickening to to visit families in the middle of the night, make parents wait outside, wake up children and strip them naked to look for bruises that were never there.
"More often than not," he adds, "victims of false reports turned out to be people in the midst of completely unrelated feuds with a neighbor or two. Strange coincidence."
One such feud generated a call to the Buffalo, New York, child abuse hotline reporting that two children were being left alone all day, forced to forage for food in garbage cans.
When the caseworker arrived to investigate the allegations, she walked in on a wedding.
"The person who called the hotline was a spiteful neighbor," explained Karen Schimke, who ran the Erie County CPS unit at the time. "She was upset at not having been invited to the wedding."
Anonymous reports would appear to be particularly troublesome, with only about 25 percent of them substantiated, as compared to 35 percent of reports from other nonprofessional sources.
From the Los Angeles Times comes this account of caseworker Jennifer Garza, who is investigating a report of domestic violence reported by a 17-year-old runaway girl:
Garza finds an immaculate apartment, with wind chimes on the porch, a computer, embroidered house rules hung on the wall, an umbrella folder of medical records, a fat toddler in bed watching "Aladdin" on the VCR, a well-scrubbed 13-year-old boy and a 35-year-old mother from El Salvador who speaks halting English.
The mother asks for a Spanish-speaking social worker, but in the meantime gives Garza a synopsis. The daughter is incorrigible, Isabel Quezada says, and "wants to do what she wants to do." She has run away and filed false complaints before.
"We get a lot of these," Garza says. "Kids running wild and then reporting child abuse."
Writes Keith Richards, an eight-year veteran of Long Island, New York, child protective services system: "People try to manipulate the CPS system all the time. You know, schools and hospitals calling to protect their behinds when a kid has a hangnail, neighbors harassing neighbors, estranged spouses trying to zap it to their ex."
This raises the question of how many deliberately false reports are generated during custody disputes. While the actual percentage of knowingly deliberate reports generated by custody disputes remains controversial, it nevertheless remains a problem.
A Michigan study concludes: "Divorcing parents and their attorneys often attempt to use CPS motivated by their own custody objectives."
Recent legislation enacted in Virginia specifically addresses the problem, with a legislative committee having found anecdotal evidence which would suggest that such allegations often stem from the divorce attorney.
The problem may be worse when it involves noncustodial parents after a divorce has been settled.
Notes Douglas Besharov: "the vast majority of reports from noncustodial parents prove to be unfounded."
This may suggest that the hotlines are often used as a tool to obtain custody or increased visitation with a child after a divorce settlement, and that some estranged parents may use the hotline as a tool of revenge or of vindication.
There would appear to be no shortage of frivolous reports. These may not be deliberately malicious, but of the variety of nuisance calls, or false alarms made to police or fire departments.
Evidently, some industry leaders may need to spend some time in the field with caseworkers such as Marc Parent and Jennifer Garza, as they fail to recognize that these frivolous, malicious and false reports only make an already impossible job all the more difficult.
Says David Liederman of the Child Welfare League of America: "Sure, there are loads of frivolous reports being made into the hotlines, but so what?"
Perhaps Liederman needs also to spend a day in the Orange County Abuse Registry, where one of every four calls coming in is lost to the hold buttons and constant busy signals.
Whatever the actual number, the deliberately false, malicious and nuisance reports are problematic. They divert resources away from children truly in harms way, putting the lives of children at risk.
Even when reports are not made with malicious or frivolous intent, they still hamper resources. Douglas Besharov describes the well-intentioned, but often inappropriate reports that are often made to the hotlines:
Many involve situations in which the person reporting, in a well-intentioned effort to protect a child, overreacts to a vague and often misleading possibility that the child may be maltreated. Others involve situations of poor child care that, though of legitimate concern, simply do not amount to child abuse or neglect. In fact, a substantial proportion of unfounded cases are referred to other agencies for them to provide needed services for the family.
For example, in Rock County, Missouri, 3,213 referrals were received in 1994. Of those, 25 percent were screened out even before an assessment was done. Those were situations where a person had a concern about a family, but the concern did not meet the statutory definition of abuse or neglect.
According to the Beloit Daily News, such reports included: "a caller reporting a parent is using a babysitter too much," or "using welfare money foolishly." Those calls may be referred to another agency.
In 1995, intake workers with the Hawaii Department of Human Services received 15,000 to 20,000 calls from people reporting something wrong, according to Deborah Lee, assistant program administrator for Child Protective Services intake, abuse and neglect units.
"It may not necessarily be abuse or neglect but I think people are desperate, wanting some kind of assistance or support, and they don't know where else to call," says Lee.
According to a Georgia child protective services supervisor, the telephone intake workers frequently receive referrals that are not valid.
"It might not constitute child abuse or neglect where we need to be involved," the supervisor said, "but the person that called felt that we needed to consider it."
As of 1992 the New Hampshire Division for Children and Youth Services received approximately 13,000 reports a year.
These ranged from inquiries about adoption procedures to reports of physical and sexual abuse of children.
Of the 13,000 reports, the agency investigated approximately one half of them, about 6,700 allegations of abuse and neglect.
According to Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, in 1997, of the 355,579 calls made to its hotlines, only 19.2 percent were actually passed on for investigation.
DCFS explains: "The Register receives many types of calls, including multiple calls about the same report, calls from investigators seeking additional information and miscellaneous calls routed to the Department through the Register."
Just how many of these "over 3 million reports of abuse and neglect" are actually requests for information or services, such as food stamps, is difficult to determine.
The actual number is suggested by the number of reports screened out by the states, ranging from a low of 15 percent to a high of 80 percent, according to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.
What is clear is that a very small number of reports even merit investigation by child protective caseworkers.
In Virginia Beach, the Department of Social Services receives almost 500 calls per week, according to agency director Daniel Stone. "Many of these complaints are screened out because they do not meet the state/federal criteria for abuse or can be handled by another program," writes Stone.
How many of these 500 calls per week actually result in an active investigation?
Stone explains: "CPS investigators actively respond to over 60 complaints per week. Responding means that the worker must have a face-to-face interview with the child or children and must interview all alleged abusers or neglectors. All collaterals and parents who are not the alleged abusers must also be interviewed."
In other words, of the approximately 500 calls received by the Virginia Beach Department of Social Services in any given week, about 440 do not merit an investigation.
Elsewhere in Virginia, Prince William County child welfare officials field nearly 5,000 reports a year, less than a third of which are classified as valid complaints. Of these, only about 300 annually, or six percent, are classified as "founded cases," or those believed to involve actual wrongdoing.
The data would suggest that between the deliberately malicious reports, the frivolous reports, those that fall outside of the statutory definitions of child abuse and neglect, and the requests for information or other services, between 50 to 80 percent of those "3.1 million reports of abuse and neglect" made annually are not reports of abuse or neglect within the statutory definitions at all.
According to a recent report issued by the New York State Senate, few reports indicated physical abuse, while the great majority involve various forms of minor neglect, usually stemming from situational circumstances related to poverty:
DSS reports that most reports involve neglect, rather than abuse. In 1995, 118,267 (91.7%) of all reports were for neglect, which includes inadequate provision of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care when the parent is financially able to provide them, as well as lack of supervision or emotional care, excessive corporal punishment, and abandonment.
DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS
Several influential groups continue to use the number of reports in such a manner as to confuse the casual reader into concluding that they meaningfully represent the true extent of child abuse.
Among the many groups which continue to use this slight-of-hand technique is the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.
While the NCPCA itself reported on the extent of screening among the states in its 1994 Annual Survey, it frames the issue in a very different light in the conclusion of its 1996 Survey, in which authors Deborah Daro and Ching-Tung Wang write: "Child abuse reports remain at a high rate. Last year, child abuse increased slightly, exceeding 3.1 million."
Has Deborah Daro read the 1994 NCPCA Annual Survey? One would certainly hope so, given that her name appears as that of an author.
It is the selective presentation of facts coupled with a certain framing which has precipitated criticism of the NCPCA provided figures in the past.
In 1993, for example, TIME Magazine branded NCPCA claims about the number of abused children as among "flagrantly flimsy figures." The NCPCA was taken to task on its framing of the then 2.7 million annual reports as representing the actual rate of physical abuse.
Child advocates meanwhile insist 2.7 million youngsters are suffering grievous abuse. But that statistic reflects total reports of suspected mistreatment, not substantiated individual cases, warns Douglas Besharov, former director of the U.S. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. Moreover, the figure includes not only instances of physical or sexual assault and starvation--as the public commonly assumes--but also so-called educational neglect and poor emotional nurturing. Besharov whittles the figure on child abuse to 420,000, though some experts say that's too low.
The NCPCA is apparently undeterred by its critics, as it continues to use the technique of presenting increases in reporting as increases in abuse. "Child Abuse Rates Remain High - Over Three Million Children Reported Victims," reads the suggested headline of a recent NCPCA press release announcing the results of the 1996 Survey.
According to Deborah Daro herself, such obfuscation on the part of the NCPCA may be deliberate. Responding to criticism of NCPCA provided figures, Daro explained to reporters:
Our emphasis is not to give people the absolute truth but to give people a sense of the dimension of the problem.
Fortunately, the truth is far removed from the sense of dimension that the NCPCA and other like-minded groups endeavor to convey.
How many of these reports indicate severe physical abuse of the type most people imagine when the number of reports is given? How many of these result in founded dispositions of severe physical abuse after investigation?
Copyright © 1997 - 2002 Rick Thoma
Last Updated May 2, 2003