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August 14, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Sigh, Child Protective Services. They always seem to overreact or underreact. Of course that’s just the way it seems because the cases that make the news are the bad ones, the ones in which a child was in danger and CPS ignored it or the child was in no danger and CPS tore apart a family for no reason. Plus, there’s a third category in which CPS got it right; social workers saved a child at risk or accurately determined that a child was fine and nothing needed to be done.

But this story is less about CPS than it is about the system in which it operates (Free-Range Kids, 8//16). Specifically, that means the system of mandated reporting by teachers, doctors, nurses, police, daycare operators and the like. Essentially, the child protection system requires those people to report every suspicion of child abuse or neglect. Failure to do so can have dire consequences, like the loss of a job.

The unsurprising result? Over-reporting on a vast scale. Last year, the Administration for Children and Families, the federal agency that collects data from states on child abuse and neglect, reported that, of the 3.2 million reports made to child protective authorities, only about 675,000 merited their attention. That in turn means that much time and money is spent responding to reports that don’t need to be made in the first place. And finally, that means that, while social workers are investigating non-cases, they’re not attending to kids who need their help.

The always excellent Lenore Skenazy reports:

What a week it has been for Tammy O’Haire, a cowgirl (and online fitness trainer) in Bozeman, MT, who’s mom to a 9-month-old bouncy baby boy. On Monday she put him in daycare for the very first time: a warm, welcoming place in Belgrade, MT, where the food is organic.

On Tuesday, Tammy got a call at work — a cattle feedlot — from Child Protective Services. The agency had to meet with her immediately. She and her husband were suspected of child abuse. The daycare center had called CPS to report a bruise on the baby’s chest.

In a sane world, if a daycare attendant wondered about a mark on a child’s chest, she might pick up the phone and call the parent, but that’s not the world we live in. The person at the daycare center really had no option but to call CPS. After all, she didn’t want to lose her job. As usual, Skenazy nails it:

But with our mandatory reporting laws — and with childcare workers trained to think not only of what terrible thing could be happening, but what terrible thing could happen to them if they don’t report it — the scales tipped and the provider made the call. (On the provider’s own Facebook page, she stands by her decision, but says it was a hard one.)

Of course that’s the choice she made. It’s always easier to “err on the side of safety,” right? Except safety is sometimes the last thing a child gets from CPS. Depending on the situation, a child taken from its parents may suffer terribly from the separation alone. It may then spend days, weeks or even months with strangers (foster care) while the system figures out what to do next. Fortunately the O’Haires and their child got off better than that, but still…

Tammy made an appointment for her and her husband to meet with CPS on Wednesday. But first thing that morning, she took her son to the pediatrician. ”She examined him — she’s been his pediatrician since he was six days old,” Tammy told me, “and she confirmed it was a birthmark and not a bruise.” The doctor even wrote a note.

What’s more, Tammy has posted Facebook photos of her son every month on his birthday. The birthmark showed up at around five months. So she had four time-stamped photos of this “bruise.”

At her CPS appointment, she showed the CPS worker and the sheriff, who joined them, the photos and the doctor’s note.

And?

“The sheriff told us that he thought the birthmark looked like a handprint.”

So the O’Haires still have an open case with CPS. Heaven forbid that their little boy should fall down between now and then. Children have been taken from parents on far flimsier evidence.

Meanwhile, Skenazy makes the obvious and responsible point that, the mere fact that we have mandatory reporting doesn’t mean the adults in charge of the situation must suspend their adult common sense or their ability to judge the reality of what’s been reported.

These stories illustrate the fact that we must kill off the notion that overreacting to nearly non-existent threats is prudent. Clearly, the daycare provider had been trained, just like the TSA, to treat anything the least bit suspicious as incredibly, overwhelmingly suspicious. Overkill is the government MO. It shouldn’t be.

Then, too, the whole idea that people working with kids could lose their jobs if they DON’T report what turns out to be a problem means they have every incentive (other than customer relations) to err on the side of hysteria. No one loses her job for a false negative.

As one parent wrote in support of the day care provider on the provider’s page, “I would rather see 1 million reports that end up not being an issue than see even one go unreported and lead to serious injury or the death of a child.”

We have to stop framing the issue like that. If the system is reporting 1 million unfounded cases, that is a million families distraught. This is not something we have to just shrug off in the name of child safety. We cannot allow hysteria to trigger government involvement.

All true. But what Skenazy neglects to mention is that fact that all those meritless reports of non-existent child abuse have consequences beyond the pain they cause families like the O’Haires. The parent Skenazy quoted who’d rather see 1 million false reports than one child injured doesn’t understand one very important fact – CPS doesn’t have unlimited resources. If it did, then she’d be right. But the reality is that all those reports require the attention of case workers of whom no child protective agency in the country has enough.

So each of those 2.6 million reports to CPS last year that turned out to be baseless took someone’s time and attention away from children in real need, in real danger. In so doing, our mandatory reporting system makes life not safer, but less safe for kids. CPS employees have too much to do without having to run after every kid with a birth mark.

 

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