Assessing child-abuse reports a complex challenge
Filed Under Burlington Free Press, 11/28/13
NEW YORK — The calls, reporting suspicions of child abuse and
neglect, come in at a rate of nearly 10,000 a day, to hotlines and
law-enforcement offices across the country.
They add up to 3.4 million reports per year — a daunting
challenge for state child protection agencies, which must sort out the flimsy
or trivial claims from the credible and potentially dire ones, and make
decisions that balance the rights of parents with the welfare of children. Many
states, after initial screening, deem more than half the reports they receive
to be unworthy of further investigation.
"In child protection, you are always walking a difficult
line," said Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner of Vermont's Department for
Children and Families.
"Obviously you want to protect children from harm, but you
don't want to intervene in the private life of a family when it's not
indicated," she said. "Those decisions need to be made carefully, so
you're getting it right as often as possible."
The issue of child-abuse reporting burst into the spotlight last
week with news that Arizona's Child Protective Services failed to look into
about 6,000 reports of suspected child maltreatment that had been phoned in to
its abuse hotline in recent years. At least 125 cases already have been
identified in which children were later alleged to have been abused.
Other states have had problems with their processing of abuse
reports. Florida's Department of Children and Families, for example, overhauled
its abuse hotline last year after flaws were discovered with how information
was collected and relayed to investigators.
In general, however, advocacy groups and academic experts credit
child-protection agencies and their workers with trying their best, under
"Child protection workers are very valuable to our
country," said Jim Hmurovich, president of the Chicago-based advocacy
group Prevent Child Abuse America and former director of Indiana's Division of
Family and Children. "They often have to make determinations with limited
information, and they care a lot."
Nationally, the standard practice is to vet all the calls coming
in to the hotlines. Yet as that is done, federal data show that about 40
percent are soon "screened out" — judged not to warrant further
intervention or investigation. Among the reasons: The alleged maltreatment
might be deemed innocuous, or the caller may fail to provide enough details for
the agency to pursue.
Of the 3.4 million reports received for the 2011 fiscal year,
about 2 million — or 60 percent — were "screened in" to trigger some
degree of state intervention, according to the latest federal figures. Of those
cases, 680,000 ended up being substantiated as incidents of neglect and abuse.
Even at that stage, there are options. The child-protection
agency may open a formal child-abuse investigation or, in a less drastic step,
it may assign social workers to assess a given family's circumstances and offer
counseling, support services or other intervention. Minnesota is at the
forefront of a group of states pursuing this strategy, known as
"It is hard work," said Erin Sullivan Sutton,
Minnesota's assistant commissioner for children and family services. "One
of the challenges is being able to distinguish where people are doing horrible
things to children and those situations where a mom or dad are trying to be
good parents but lack the resources to do so."
Minnesota screens in only about a third of all the reports
received through a statewide network of county and tribal hotlines — well under
the national rate of 60 percent. But Sullivan Sutton says voluntary social
services are offered to some of the families who figure in the cases that
aren't going to be subjected to a formal abuse investigation.
"We care as much about the families who are screened out as
those who are screened in," she said.
Vermont, like Minnesota, screens in only about 30 percent of the
reports phoned in to its statewide hotline. In 2011, there were 15,256 reports
and 4,911 of them were accepted for state intervention — either a child abuse
investigation or a less draconian assessment.
Walcott said her agency is comfortable with the low screen-in
"We encourage people to call," she said. "Even if
they just suspect something, we prefer they call us. It's our job to sort through
the information they give us."
Overall, experts say it's difficult to assess how good a job the
state agencies are doing with their screening of abuse reports — in part
because variances in laws and practices make precise state-to-state comparisons
almost impossible. Even the basic definitions of child maltreatment vary.
"We don't have a lot of information about the cases that
are screened out, so it's hard to say if a good decision was made," said
John Fluke, an expert on child maltreatment at University of Colorado School of
Vermont did undertake a detailed assessment of its abuse
reporting system in 2012. It concluded that its decisions on screening in were
highly accurate but found fault with 22 percent of the decisions to screen out,
generally on grounds that those decisions were made without gathering enough
information about the case.
According to the federal data, the total number of reports of
suspected maltreatment rose from 3.1 million in 2007 to 3.4 million in 2011.
The number of confirmed cases of abuse or neglect declined over that period,
from 723,000 to 681,000, at a time when many state child-protection agencies
were experiencing tight budgets and heavy caseloads.
Virtually every state has laws outlining who is required to
report instances of suspected child maltreatment. Most states designate certain
professions — notably law enforcement personnel, social workers, teachers and
other school personnel, doctors and other health care workers, and child-care
providers. However, 18 states have laws requiring any person who suspects child
abuse to make a report.
Sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the University of New
Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, said some members of the
public may make calls that are far too vague for an agency to pursue.
"When professionals call, they understand what's needed to
make a credible report," he said.