Kari Anne Roy, an Austin resident, had her 6-year-old son escorted home from playing outside by a woman she didn’t know. Her son was outside with his 8-year-old sister, less than 150 yards away from the house. The woman was concerned for the child’s safety in playing outside without an adult, and within a few hours of her leaving, a police officer visited Roy’s house. Then a CPS investigator later that week, who interviewed her children privately. Roy’s husband and even their babysitter were both called, all because of an anonymous report by a neighbor.
Current child abuse reporting laws increase the risk of wrongful investigations and unnecessarily clog the system with unsubstantiated cases, diverting limited resources away from children in imminent danger. Policymakers must enact legislation that reworks the system into a service laser-focused on the children most in need of protection.
Approximately 19 states require individuals who report suspicions of child abuse or neglect to provide CPS with their name and contact information. Texas isn’t one of those states and permits anonymous reporting. This creates several problems, including impairing the quality of investigations and opening the system up for abuse by bad actors filing false and malicious reports.
National data shows that anonymous reports are consistently of poorer quality. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reports to CPS in jurisdictions that allow for anonymous reporting are found to be inaccurate nearly three times as often as reports in jurisdiction that require reporters to identify themselves. Another study published in the Catholic University Law Review only 1.5% of anonymous reports went on to indicate abuse or neglect.
Beyond the higher rate of inaccuracy associated with anonymous reports, anonymity also increases the likelihood that CPS reporting will be used for malicious purposes. A report released this month by the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, for example, included details on how landlords in Texas leveraged anonymous reporting to improperly evict renters. According to the investigation, a property manager in San Antonio was advised by corporate executives to harass a tenant it was seeking to evict by “calling child protective services on the tenant if any children were present.”
Malicious reports are commonly seen in divorce and custody disputes. Abigail West, a Nashville mother, recently testified in favor of proposed Tennessee legislation that would end anonymous reporting in that state. In the midst of what she called a “nasty” custody dispute, CPS took custody of her daughter for nine months as a result of an anonymous report that was ultimately discredited. She still does not know who filed the report.
Proponents of anonymous reporting argue that it is necessary to protect reporters from retaliation. This argument, however, ignores the fact that federal law already requires every state to provide robust confidentiality protections for reporters of abuse or neglect. These existing protections combined with the inaccuracy risk of harm associated with anonymous reporting render it wholly unnecessary for the protection of children.
Studies into states with universal mandatory reporting show that the system largely fails at its goal of better identifying children who have been abused or neglected. In fact, in states with universal mandatory reporting, only 1 in 15 reports made by nonprofessionals are ultimately confirmed. In states without universal mandatory reporting, the rate of confirmation is 1 in 8 cases.
A better alternative is to follow the lead of states that limit mandatory reporting to certain classes of professionals, like teachers and doctors, who have regular contact with children. In these states, the general public is still permitted (and encouraged) to report suspicions of abuse or neglect, but they are not required by law to do so. Among the classes of professionals who have a legal duty to report, training on identifying cases of abuse and neglect is often required, which helps increasing the accuracy of reports made to child abuse hotlines. Shifting from universal mandatory reporting to professional reporting would also allow Texas to make an innovative adjustment to its reporting system that would aid in reducing the number of children who enter foster care and better support struggling families.
The structure of mandatory reporting laws and criminal penalties associated with failure to report has created a system in which the reporters with concerns about a child feel their only option is to report the family to the CPS. However, not all cases rise to a level requiring CPS intervention. In Texas, at least 3 in 4 cases investigated by CPS are for neglect, not abuse, and a statistically significant number of these neglect cases are for issues rooted in poverty. It is critical to remember that the child protection system is intended to protect children who have been harmed or are in imminent danger of being harmed. It is not intended nor equipped to be a one-stop-shop for services for families facing difficult circumstances. However, overly strict reporting laws have moved it in that direction. One change lawmakers can implement to address this problem is giving reporters the option to fulfill their reporting requirement by connecting families with community-based services designed to assist with what they need. As a part of this reform, reporters should receive training on alternatives to calls and identifying appropriate circumstances for an alternate referral.
Current CPS reporting laws allowing for anonymous and universal mandatory reporting undermine the effectiveness of our child welfare system, divert limited resources away from children most in need, and cause unnecessary trauma to innocent families. Texas lawmakers can improve the system by abolishing anonymous reporting and only designating certain classes of trained professionals as mandatory reporters. Professional reporters should also be trained on alternatives to CPS and permitted to refer families to community based supportive services. By enacting these simple reforms, Texas can improve its effectiveness at protecting children from abuse while also strengthening families without the trauma of CPS involvement.