Protecting Children from Unnecessary Trauma
by Maggie McKneely • July 16, 2019
Responding to the evil of child abuse means rescuing children from the people who harm them and punishing their abusers. It also means avoiding unnecessary state intrusion into the lives of innocent families.
Every year, 3.5 million children undergo traumatic child abuse investigations or some other formal response from CPS. Yet only 18% of abuse reports are found to be substantiated. And every year, HSLDA assists families who have been wrongfully accused of child abuse and whose lives have been intruded upon by overzealous CPS investigators.
Too many children are needlessly separated from loving parents; too many parents are made to feel as if agreeing to the removal of their children from their homes is their best hope for a favorable resolution to an investigation. And child-welfare investigators are so overloaded that it is impossible to catch all instances of abuse.
That is why earlier this year, we advocated for commonsense reforms to federal legislation: The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). Our goal was to protect loving parents while improving investigators’ ability to deliver children from abuse and neglect.
The results so far have been mixed.
A Good Start
CAPTA, or the “Mondale Act,” was first signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1974. The lengthy bill provides federal funding and guidance to state child protection programs for the purpose of preventing and treating child abuse; CAPTA must be periodically reauthorized by both Congress and the president.
Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a CAPTA reauthorization bill—“Stronger CAPTA”—that included a major reform for which HSLDA advocated.
Stronger CAPTA tightened the standard for removing children from the home. Over the years, HSLDA has encountered CPS investigators who believed they were entitled to remove a child from his home with no proof the child was in danger or that removal would improve the situation. But a small phrase in the previous edition of CAPTA gave them authority to do this: “contrary to the welfare of the child.”
This standard operates like the “best interest of the child” guidelines. It sounds benign and child friendly; in reality, state officials use this standard as a carte blanche to remove children from disproportionately minority, disabled, and disadvantaged families simply because they believe this is better for the children’s welfare.
The new language in Stronger CAPTA changes “contrary to the welfare of the child” to “imminent harm.” This improved standard will place a greater burden on CPS investigators to determine that a child is truly in danger before separating him from his parents.
This is a good start—but the bill needs more work. As the proposal makes its way toward the Senate, HSLDA is calling for other necessary reforms to be included.
Room for Improvement
The House’s Stronger CAPTA failed to address two of our other concerns, which we are advocating for the Senate to take up. Currently, CAPTA encourages states to set up child abuse registries but requires no individual due process protections. No one wants to protect child abusers, but far too many innocent people are harmed by being inaccurately listed on a registry.
A person does not have to be convicted or charged with a crime before being placed on a registry and, in many states, does not even have to be notified that he or she is now on such a list. A person can be listed for years, or even life, simply on the word of a child welfare investigator.
And although these listings can be appealed, it can take months (or years) for a name wrongly placed on a registry to be removed. In the past year alone, HSLDA has had six such cases, and all six clients’ appeals were successful. We believe that CAPTA should include protections that prevent innocent people from ever being put on a registry in the first place.
Our second proposed reform would replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting. CAPTA requires states to have hotlines for reporting child abuse, but it doesn’t specify how these hotlines, or the investigations that stem from them, should be run. To ensure that as many instances of child abuse are reported as possible, many states allow for anonymous reporting. Callers can allege “child abuse” without leaving any of their contact information with the hotline operator.
The unintended result is that anonymous reporting can be used by anyone (including former romantic partners, estranged relatives, and vindictive neighbors) to spark an intrusive child abuse investigation. A study found that only 1.5% of all hotline reports made anonymously also turned out to be substantiated.
CAPTA should instead replace this faulty system of anonymous reporting with “confidential reporting.” This reform would allow the reporter to keep their identity a secret from the accused while providing it to the CPS agency. Confidential reporting would filter intentionally spurious reports, result in fewer innocent families caught in the system, and allow more substantiated cases of child abuse to receive the attention they need.
The House bill is merely one step in a multi-step process, and it’s encouraging that lawmakers did include some reforms. But there’s still much to be done to ensure CAPTA protects both vulnerable children from abuse and innocent families from needless investigations. Now that the bill has passed the by the House of Representatives, it’s the Senate’s turn to draft its own version of a CAPTA reauthorization. Until that is introduced, we will continue to lobby for these reforms that would improve the child welfare system.
As the bill works its way through the halls of Congress, we will keep you updated on our work at the federal level to protect children and their families.