Child Protective Services
For 30 years, advocates, program administrators, and politicians have joined to encourage even more reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Their efforts have been successful, with about three million cases of suspected child abuse having been reported in 1993. Large numbers of endangered children still go unreported, but a serious problem had developed: Upon investigation, as many as 65 percent or the reports now being made are determined to be “unsubstantiated”, raising serious civil liberties concerns and placing a huge burden on investigative staffs.
Most experts agree that reports have increased over the past 30 years because professional have become more likely to report apparently abusive and neglectful situations. But the question remains: How many more cases still go unreported?
Two studies performed for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect by Westat, Inc. provide an answer. In 1980 and then again in 1986, Westat conducted national studies of the incidence of child abuse and neglect. Each study used the same method: In a sample of counties, a sample of professionals who serve children was asked whether, during the study period, the children they ha seen in their offices appeared to have been abused or neglected.
Because the information these selected professionals provided could be matched against pending cases in the local child protective agency, Westat was able to estimate rates of nonreporting among the surveyed professionals. It could not, of course, estimate the level of unintentional nonreporting, since there is no way to know of the situations in which professionals did not recognize signs of possible mistreatment. There is also no way to know how many children the professionals recognized as being mistreated but chose not to report to the study. Obviously, since the study method involved asking professionals about children they had seen in their offices, it also did not allow Westat to estimate the number of children seen by nonprofessionals, let alone their nonreporting rate.
Westat found that professionals failed to report many of the children they saw who had signs of child abuse and neglect. It found that in 1986, 56 percent of apparently abused or neglected children, or about 500,000 children, were not reported to the authorities. This figure, however, seems more alarming than it is: Basically, the more serious the case, the more likely the report. For example, the surveyed professionals reported over 85 percent of the fatal or serious physical abuse cases they saw, 72 percent of the sexual abuse cases, and 60 percent of the moderate physical abuse cases. They only reported 15 percent of the educational neglect cases they saw, 24 percent of the emotional neglect cases, and 25 percent of the moderate physical neglect cases.
Nationwide, between 60 and 65 percent of all reports are closed after an initial investigation determines that they are “unfounded” or “unsubstantiated” . The existence of this high unfounded rate was reconfirmed by the annual Fifty State Survey of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (NCPCA), which found that in 1993 only about 34 percent of the reports received by child protective agencies were substantiated.
Between 1989 and 1993, as the number of reports received by the city’s child welfare agency increased by over 30 percent, the percent of substantiated reports fell by about 47 percent.
The determination that a report is unfounded can only be made after an unavoidable traumatic investigation that is of parental and family privacy. To determine whether a particular child is in danger, caseworkers must look into the most intimate personal and family matters. Often it is necessary to question friends, relatives, and neighbors, as well as schoolteachers, day-care personnel, doctors, clergy, and others who know the family.
Laws against child abuse are saying that families have the right to privacy to protect helpless children. But in seeking to protect children, it’s easy to ignore investigations of unfounded reports. This is a unjustified violation of parental rights.
Few reports are made maliciously. Studies of sexual abuse reports, for example, suggest that, at most, from 4 to 10 percent of these reports are knowingly false. Many involve situations in which the person reporting, in a well-intentioned effort to protect a child overreacts to an often misleading possibility that the child may be mistreated. Others involve situations of poor childcare that, thought of legitimate concern, simply do not subject the child to abuse of neglect. In fact, substantial proportions of unfounded cases are referred to other agencies for them to provide services for the family.
In fact, an unfounded report does not mean that the child was not actually abused or neglected. Evidence of child mistreatment is hard to obtain and might not be uncovered when agencies lack the time and resources to complete a thorough investigation or when inaccurate information is given to the investigator. Other cases are labeled unfounded when no services are available to help the family. Some cases must be closed because the child or family cannot be located.
The current number of unfounded reports is overwhelming the limited resources of child protective agencies. For fear of missing even one abused child, workers perform extreme investigations of vague and apparently unsupported reports. Even when a home visit based on an anonymous report turns up no evidence of mistreatment; they usually interview neighbors, schoolteachers, and day-care personnel to make sure that the child is not abused. And even repeated anonymous and unfounded reports do not prevent a further investigation. But all this takes time.
As a result, children in real danger are getting lost in the press of inappropriate cases. Forced to investigate the limited resources of unfounded reports intensively, child protective agencies are less able to respond promptly and effectively when children are in serious danger. Some reports are left uninvestigated for a week and even two weeks after they are received. Investigations often miss key facts, ads workers rush to clear cases, and dangerous home situations receive inadequate supervision as workers must ignore pending cases as they investigate the new reports that arrive daily on their desks. Decision making also suffers. With so many cases of unsubstantiated or unproven risk to children, caseworkers are not sensitive to the obvious warning signals of immediate and serious danger.
These nationwide conditions help explain why from 25 percent to 50 percent of child abuse deaths involve children previously known to the authorities. In 1993, the NCPCA reported that of the 1,149 child mistreatment deaths, 42 percent had already been reported to the authorities. Tens of thousands of other children suffer serious injuries short of death while under child protective agency supervision.
In a 1992 New York City case, for example, five-month-old Jeffrey Harden died from burns caused by scalding water and three broken ribs while under the supervision of NYC’s child welfare administration. Jeffrey Harden’s family had been known to the administration for more than a year and a half. Over this period, the case had been handled by four separate caseworkers, each conducting only partial investigations before resigning or being reassigned to new cases. It is unclear whether Jeffrey’s death was caused by his mother or her boyfriend, but because of insufficient time and overburdened caseloads, all four workers failed to pay attention to a whole lot of obvious warning signals: Jeffrey’s mother had broken her parole for an earlier conviction of child sexual abuse, she had a past record of beating Jeffrey’s older sister, and she had a history of crack addiction and past involvement with violent boyfriends.
The emotionally charged desire to “do something” about child abuse, had outstanding media coverage. For years, advocates, program administrators, and politicians have all pushed for more reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect.
Potential reporters are frequently told to “take no chances” and to report any child for whom they have the slightest concern. There is a tendency to tell people to report children whose behavior suggests that they have been abused. These indicators include children who are unusually withdrawn or shy as well as children who are unusually friendly to strangers. However, only a small minority of children who show such behaviors have actually been mistreated.
Failure to report
Few people fail to report because they do not care about an endangered child. Instead, they may be unaware of the danger the child faces or of the protective procedures that are available. A study of nonreporting among teachers, for example, blamed their “lack of knowledge for detecting symptoms of child abuse and neglect.” Few inappropriate of unfounded reports are deliberately false statements. Most involve an honest desire to protect children with confusion about what conditions are reportable.
Confusion about reporting is largely caused by the lack of reporting laws and aggravated by the failure of child protective agencies to provide guidance about deciding to report. A group of child protection professionals made a new law agencies must follow when doing anything concerning their investigation with a certain child or family. Here is an example:
1. Clarify child abuse reporting laws.
3. Screen reports.
4. Modify liability laws.
Adopt an agency policy.
Child abuse and neglect is a very serious issue that can not be taken lightly. We need to provide continuing public education and professional training. Few people fail to report because they want children to suffer abuse and neglect. Likewise, few people make deliberately false reports. Most involve an honest desire to protect children coupled with confusion about what conditions are reportable. Educational efforts should emphasize the conditions that do not justify a report, as well as those that do.