Another day, another boatload of tax money spent for no good reason (Reason, 8/22/18). It’s the inimitable Lenore Skenazy again with another tale of bureaucratic overreaching, this time on the part of a Wilmette, IL child protective agency.
What were they investigating this time? An eight-year-old girl walking the family dog. In her own neighborhood. Within sight of her mother. That most normal of situations was anonymously reported to the police who paid a surprise visit to the girl’s mother, Corey Widen. They left without further ado, but soon the Department of Children and Family Services showed up. And they didn’t leave the matter at just a quick interview of Widen. No, they interviewed Widen’s other children, various relatives and the girl’s pediatrician.
Eventually of course the whole thing was dropped. But it should never have reached the investigative stage.
"This case should have been screened out immediately and not sent for an investigation," Diane Redleaf, a long-time family defense attorney and author of the forthcoming book They Took the Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Families At Risk, told me.
Right. Widen’s case should have been put where 80% of reports to CPS agencies end up – in the round file on the floor. As of 2016, the Administration for Children and Families reported about 3.4 million allegations of child abuse or neglect, of which 676,000 were found to have merit. Widen’s should have been dealt with on the telephone. It was a huge waste of DCFS (and police) resources, to say nothing of the consternation it undoubtedly caused Widen, her kids and everyone who came into contact with investigators.
And, as I’ve said before, that overreaching isn’t just a waste. It’s far worse than that. After all, every CPS agency in the country is strapped for funds, and has too few caseworkers to handle the real cases, the cases in which a child is truly at risk or already being harmed. Utterly useless complaints take up time that should be used helping children who need it.
But of course the system we’ve set up absolutely guarantees exactly that. We’ve created a huge network of “mandated reporters,” e.g. the police, school administrators, teachers, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, etc. – who are required by law, and at the risk of their jobs should they fail, to report the slightest suggestion of abuse or neglect. Unsurprisingly, the system over-reports.
Add to that the fact that we’ve also created a culture of fear for children’s safety that everywhere encourages our friends, neighbors and complete strangers to report what they believe to be child abuse or neglect. That many of those reports can be made anonymously, as was the one against Widen, tends to embolden those seeking revenge for some perceived or actual slight.
In short, the system we have ensures over-reporting and that’s what we get. We get that at the expense of increasing the danger to children who need the attention CPS exists to provide. They often don’t get it because understaffed agencies are too often running down non-existent cases.
But it’s actually worse even yet. It’s one thing to say that our child protective system is woefully inefficient, which it is. It’s another to realize that that’s the good news. Far worse is the fact that the culture of fear we’ve produced actually ends up harming kids.
It does that by strongly encouraging overprotection of them. We often hear overprotection defended as “erring on the side of caution,” but it’s anything but. The simple fact is that human beings and human society are extremely complex. Children are born very immature and therefore need long years of socialization in order to become responsible, productive members of society.
Protecting them from every harm would, therefore, be bad for them even if we could do it, which we can’t. Overprotection produces children who are perennially dependent, unable to “launch” as adults, because they’ve never had the opportunity to experiment and fail, experiment again and learn. With Mom, Dad or Big Brother forever shielding them from harm, kids never learn either their possibilities or limitations.
And that, my friends, is child abuse. It’s not just healthier for children to allow them age-appropriate freedoms, it’s unhealthy for them not to.
Those are well-known truisms, but alas, we’re far from establishing the sort of sensible policies that would reflect them.