I’ve written often about unsubstantiated claims of child abuse or neglect made to children’s welfare agencies around the country. By 2015, the Administration for Children and Families reported that, of about 3.2 million reports of suspected abuse or neglect received by state agencies, fewer than 700,000 were substantiated. About 80% were not.
And of course I’ve said time and again that, since CPS is an organ of state power, all of our constitutional rights apply to it and caseworkers’ actions. But I don’t think I’ve ever written about the use of the power of those agencies to anonymously harass parents.
Well, Lenore Skenazy has done just that (Reason, 8/3/18).
It seems that the door man for New Yorker Sean King’s apartment building contacted him one day to inform him that a woman was downstairs demanding to see his children.
blockquote>As King explained in a series of tweets about the encounter, the woman, "demanded to see three of my children. She called them by name. And said that she had to see them immediately."
… She explained that she worked for New York Child Services, and was responding to a formal complaint contending that King and his wife had abandoned the children and allowed them to do drugs.
To his credit, King told her to “get lost,” but she refused. Of course she did. When CPS receives a credible report of child abuse or neglect, they’re required by law to investigate.
King insisted the investigator connect him to her supervisor, and then explained to the supervisor that somebody—an anonymous critic of King's writings, probably—had played a "cruel prank" on him and his family. Someone was wasting everyone's time. But the supervisor didn't care.
Again, caseworker or supervisor, it’s not in her job description to “care.” It’s in her job description to investigate. Yes, the report was anonymous and no, there was nothing to corroborate the claims. The report could have been made by anyone for any reason. It could have been true and accurate or, as seems likely in King’s case, entirely made up. Such is the system that’s been set up to “protect” children.
I placed the word protect in quotation marks because the aforementioned system is, in many ways, the enemy of child protection. As I’ve written before, how much caseworker time is wasted in dealing with the 2.6 million reports that turn out to be unnecessary to keep kids safe? In King’s case, a caseworker who likely had far too many real cases in her in-box plus one supervisor spent time running after a non-case.
Essentially every state in the nation has a child welfare agency that’s understaffed, underpaid and overworked. So what do we do? We at every turn encourage the public and mandated reporters (police, doctors, teachers, etc.) to make allegations of abuse or neglect to CPS, irrespective of the reality of the situation. Unsurprisingly, kids who are in danger often find themselves overlooked by the very people whose job it is to help them.
But King’s case reveals a new dimension to the problem. Since, in many states, anonymous reporting is permitted, a report to CPS can be used as a weapon to harass. King will never know who phoned in the complaint against him and his wife. So the usual power we give to those who’ve been libeled, slandered, defamed, etc., is useless. You can’t sue who you don’t know. In short, King’s harasser was handed a free shot, and potentially not just one. Since the claimant is anonymous, there’s no reason he/she can’t do the same thing again and again.
[Martin Guggenheim, an NYU Law professor specializing in child welfare] has heard of angry exes who call CPS repeatedly, knowing that each call triggers another investigation. "I once complained to the agency for being utterly insensitive to this problem and asked them to figure out a way to get some sense of whether a caller has made multiple reports that have proven to be unfounded, so that you not only save your own resources but save the parents from the horrible experience of being investigated countless times," he says. "And the agency said we have to do it this way. We have no choice."
They’re right. They don’t have a choice. They have to investigate claims of abuse or neglect. This is what our system demands. It’s a result of a zeitgeist, spawned by an overenthusiastic press and nurtured by governments that miss no opportunity to expand their power at the expense of the family, that seems to invariably “err on the side of” greater intrusion into parental decision-making. That something horrible may have occurred is the claim that trumps all efforts toward reasonable policies.
Yes, something terrible may have happened. But CPS is an arm of the state and parents, children and other individuals have rights vis-à-vis the state. That needs to mean something; if it doesn’t it means nothing. And by the way, it’s not as if CPS actually prevents that “something terrible” from happening. All too often it does anyway, even with the intrusive system we have. If CPS’s actions were reviewable by the press and the public, we’d doubtless see just how often the state fails in its task of protecting kids.
So what we have is a system that’s supposed to protect kids, but can, at any time for any reason or no reason, bring a caseworker to their door armed with the power to shanghai them off to parts unknown to live with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar surroundings and never know when or if they’ll make it back to home and family.
Meanwhile Skenazy offers some truly disturbing information on false claims of abuse.
Over the course of their childhood, about 37 percent of American kids will receive a visit from CPS, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. And if they're African American, the rate is 53 percent.
That's right: More than half of all African American children will be investigated.
And every time that happens, parents and kids alike are terrified of what might happen, of the awful power of the state that’s just knocked on their door demanding entry.