I can honestly say that things need to change in the child welfare system in the United States or things will get worse and not better for many people who are involved.
I was inspired to write this because I watch all the judge shows of a day for wont of anything else to watch. Time after time, these small claims cases revolve around someone who made false reports to child welfare on someone as a retaliatory measure. It is such abuse of mandated reporting that I feel is the root of the problem.
Mandated reporting is simply this: if a person feels a child is in imminent danger, of abuse (lots of telltale signs of bruises), neglect (not seeming to get anything to eat), or some sort of psychological danger (being exposed to frequent incidents of domestic violence), any teacher, medical professional, law enforcement agent, or concerned citizen should call a child welfare agency with their concerns if it is suspected. More often than not, the person doing the reporting can remain completely anonymous.
In theory, this is a well-intentioned law to have IF there is sufficient evidence to be genuinely concerned. Unfortunately the problem with it is the fact that often, you’ll encounter teachers who don’t particularly enjoy having a particular student in their classroom, or don’t particularly like dealing with a parent of said student. (It is rare but it does happen, so instead of taking it up with the school board, or others in the district who can help the alleviate trouble with students they label “problem” students, they go this route instead because it’s either a last resort, or they simply abuse the privilege of mandated reporting because it’s there.) Occasionally you get busybody neighbors who don’t particularly like kids playing in their neighborhood and letting their basketball bounce into their flower beds on a semi-regular basis. So they get trigger happy with the number to the nearest child protective services agency and probably even have the number in their speed dial.
Unfortunately, even if the claim being made against a parent is highly ridiculous on the surface, this means that the child welfare agency taking the call has to make a referral. The procedure may very from state to state, but it usually goes something like this: CPS receives a call either locally or through a national or state hotline number and collects all the information it can from the person making the call about the suspected abuser(s) and the child or children involved. It goes from there to the appropriate state or county agency and a worker is assigned to investigate. At this point, within a reasonable amount of time between the call and the initial investigation, the CPS worker will visit with the suspected abuser on the pretense that they are innocent until proven guilty. They will explain why they are there, and may or may not invade the privacy of the individual in question for the sake of the child involved. They will ask questions about drug and alcohol abuse, (which many people will lie and try to hide) domestic violence, and, depending upon the nature of the call, ask to see if the utilities are working, ask questions regarding income and employment of family members, ask to see how much food is on hand, ask to see things like toilet paper and other hygiene supplies, and ask to view the sleeping quarters of the child or children involved. They may or may not bring a camera and take pictures. From there, they may or may not also talk to witnesses: teachers, neighbors, other family members, and even the child or children.
Then they make a determination if further services are needed, or if no action should be taken. That’s how it is supposed to work. And it is a fairly decent and simple system and when the procedure is followed properly, in cases where it’s genuinely warranted, it works like a charm. The law enforcement agents and workers are paid by taxpayer dollars and investigating cases takes more time and resources from taxpayer funds. This is where abuse of mandated reporting becomes a problem.
Take for instance the story of Joanie, and her sister Linda, who were one of those busybody neighbors who would call child welfare on every parent in their Tulsa neighborhood every chance they got. The sisters’ favorite past time was stirring up drama with all the other neighbors and Joanie especially was a highly retaliatory person. Their own kids were always running at large and Linda’s grandson was even allowed to play up on the roof of their home. Child welfare was called on them too, out of legitimate concern. Long story short, if you dared to call child welfare on Linda or Joanie, (or even if you didn’t) one could predictably expect to have them called on your child too courtesy of someone who made a game out of mandated reporting.
One child who was frequently targeted and had child welfare checking on his well-being on a frequent basis was a little boy named Markus. His mother Georgia was constantly being terrorized by Joanie and Linda. Georgia would frequently call the police on Joanie and Linda for disorderly conduct and the fact that Joanie’s teenage daughter was having sex on her front lawn on a semi-regular basis. After one such incident, Markus’s mother was behind Joanie (fresh from the county jail) in the Wal-Mart checkout and Joanie’s looks could kill. Two days later, Markus’s mother had child welfare knocking on her door because Joanie had told the agency she called, and told them that Georgia had knocked her son out of the shopping basket onto the hard floor, giving him a concussion and busting his head open. Her story was horrific enough to make the agents from child welfare come out and investigate immediately, thinking they would find a child in imminent danger.
The child welfare workers knew it was a bogus report. It had allegedly happened at a local Wal-Mart store in the neighborhood and certainly there would have been something on the surveillance cameras, and other shoppers would have come forward if it were true, as well as employees of the store. The CPS worker assigned to investigate should have and would have found this out rather quickly. The fact that nobody else called should illustrate that Joanie was just trying to cause problems. Incidentally the report was unfounded, obviously, because under mandated reporting, someone other than the person who eventually made the call would have also come forward.
Mandated reporting does what it’s supposed to do, but the bottom line is, that when you get a person like Joanie, who makes it a habit to call CPS on anyone and everyone who dares to cross her, it becomes a waste of resources. The worker assigned to the case ending up wasting precious man hours and money allotted to help children who genuinely needed it to look into the claims involving a little boy who was not only just fine, but the whole report was false. Joanie got away with it because she was allowed to make an anonymous call as a witness to a “crime” that was never committed. One could only hope that the time and money that was wasted on Markus did not deprive or endanger another child who was waiting on someone to make the call on a legitimate basis.
Child welfare agencies aren’t allowed to reveal who made the call, even if they know. They will protect their sources at all costs from the person being reported. Often, it’s not hard to figure out who turned a person in. In nearly all cases, it’s usually a teacher, law enforcement agency, a neighbor, friend, family member, or person in the medical field reporting their suspected findings. People who do not know a child and are complete strangers to the family are rare. With the advent of social networks, it’s not uncommon to find a report made by a My Space or Facebook friend who doesn’t even know the person they are calling about, and are calling from another state.
The solution to this is relatively simple. I think they should insist on a caller giving their name and stop allowing calls to be made anonymously to hotlines and local agencies. The way it’s set up now, you can call on anyone at all and not have to give your name. The person on the hotline number will ask for it, and they will ask you how you know the child or children involved, but callers are under no obligation whatsoever to say it. You can normally tell them, “I’d rather not say but I did witness this” and that’s all there is to it. I think they should start asking and insisting to get a caller’s name. It can still be kept confidential from the caretaker being investigated, but the agency should start issuing stiff fines for anyone making a false report on a constant basis. (And let CPS continue to do a quick investigation to be on the safe side.) Giving a false and slanderous report to a government agency is against the law, (and from a religious standpoint, it’s also breaking one of the ten commandments: thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.) and a few states might even have rules to prevent this kind of misappropriation from happening, but I know in Oklahoma, they do not. They protect the person making the call almost as much as they do the child in these cases. I bet if a few people who call out of habit or use the system as a form of their own personal amusement, were told that if their report were found to be false, that they’d be stiffly fined or have to reimburse the state for the cost of their investigation they might think twice out of calling to retaliate.
I don’t want to in any way discourage people from calling…especially if there is a genuine need for them to do so. But all too often, these calls are made from a disgruntled ex spouse, former friend or someone who likes to gossip or get back at someone for something and their favorite tactic is calling child welfare, wasting time and money that could have gone to another child who’s being overlooked because a child who doesn’t need the services is being helped. Those people who cry wolf should be forewarned that the punishment is going to be pretty severe if they are doing so. People taking the referral calls should ask a series of questions, such as “are you the spouse or ex spouse?” and then put on the referral report that it’s a possible false call…and then leave it up to the agency doing the actual investigation to talk not only to that witness, but also follow up on the claims as usual. Those who are making the call legitimately as they should, wouldn’t have anything to worry about. Eventually if the people making false claims are weeded out, it should in essence leave room for the calls that NEED to be made.