Calls to child protection hotlines are supposed to direct trained investigators toward credible signs of abuse or neglect — physical violence, unsafe households or sexual exploitation. Yet too often, reports come in from a vindictive ex, a scheming landlord or someone else with malicious intent. The callers are seeking not to protect a child, but to intimidate or harass a parent.
Now, New York lawmakers, child welfare leaders, foster parent groups and advocates for survivors of domestic abuse want to end these calls, which they say waste precious social worker time and taxpayer funds, and terrify those being investigated.
“We have to eliminate false and malicious reporting,” Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services Jess Dannhauser told The Imprint Weekly podcast.
State lawmakers have two weeks to decide whether to pass legislation that would reduce the influx of false allegations made to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, or SCR. The legislation advocates refer to as the Anti-Harassment in Reporting Act, first introduced by former state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D) in 2019, follows the recommendations of child welfare experts. It would require that every caller provide their name and contact information when making a report to the state’s child maltreatment hotline.
“Weaponizing the State Central Register is a real problem,” Dannhauser said in a February interview. “And we need to do something legally, regulatory or process-wise that allows us to stop that when it’s happening.”
The impact of false reports: fear
Among those often harassed by false reports of child maltreatment, parent advocates say, are women who’ve extricated themselves from violent and abusive relationships. Three mothers who were referred by an advocacy organization spoke to The Imprint about their experiences with unfair reports to the child protection hotline, and described traumatizing harassment.
Naashia B. said she was investigated for cutting her child, leading to a child protection worker examining her 6-year-old son’s body, only to find no wounds. Given her vulnerability with CPS, she is being identified by her first name and last initial only.
“False and malicious reports are a tactic of abuse. Because you can’t physically see harassment and you can’t feel harassment, it goes unheard,” she said. “Harassment and stalking is minimized, and it’s not seen as a threat.”
Shavona Warmington said she got the courage to leave an abusive partner after suffering years of domestic violence and giving birth to a baby girl. But then, she said, a new kind of abuse began: her ex called in allegations to the statewide child abuse registry.
“It’s tormenting, because you don’t know who’s calling and they can’t tell you who it is,” Warmington said of the child welfare workers who’ve knocked on her door.
Another domestic abuse survivor, Dana Hanuszczak, said an anonymous caller to CPS claimed she was doing illicit drugs. When child protective services came to her door, she had just returned from a shift at the hospital where she works.
“I looked at the person and I was like who would call this in?” she recounted. “I had just gotten home, and I was still in my hospital scrubs.”
Too many false allegations
The state’s central register receives calls of suspected child maltreatment from mandated reporters such as teachers, social workers and doctors, as well as from members of the public who make voluntary reports.
Among them are reporters who do not provide CPS with their names and contact information. Making a false report is a misdemeanor under current law, but there are no civil penalties for falsely reporting child maltreatment.
Hotline calls are “screened in” or “screened out,” depending on the allegations. Screened-in reports are assigned to a child protective worker who investigates the child’s home.
Raquel Singh is executive director of Voices of Women Organizing, a group that is pushing for the current legislation that would bar anonymous reports. Singh said the clients she represents are continually harassed by ex-partners filing baseless child maltreatment reports. Too often, she said, it’s a form of harassment deployed even when there are court-overseen protective orders in place.
“It’s really evolved into something far bigger than reporting child abuse,” Singh said. “And that’s what gets us to this sort of current state of surveillance.”
Anonymous reporters represent a high percentage of calls to the central register, but they are rarely substantiated, according to a March 2022 report from New York’s Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition. Citing state data over a five-year period from 2015 through 2019, New York received an average of 150,000 reports to the Statewide Central Register each year, 7% of which were reported by anonymous or unknown sources.
Of all reports, an average of 30% each year were found to be credible allegations of child abuse or neglect. But with anonymous reports, the credibility factor dropped to roughly 3%, nearly 10 times lower than the rate of all reports.
With no name or contact information provided from these thousands of callers, CPS cannot obtain additional information to substantiate allegations, and callers have no accountability for their claims: “Anonymous reporters may be more likely to make intentionally false reports as their anonymity protects them from any consequences,” the coalition reported.
In New York, false reports of child maltreatment fall most heavily on Black families, who are reported to CPS at close to twice the rate of white families. They are also far more likely to be investigated, and to have their cases “screened-in” following a hotline call.
The Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition, an advocacy and support group for families statewide, has its own set of concerns with false reports to the hotline. They say the calls attacking those caring for foster children can threaten the children’s placements, and the licenses of desperately needed professional parents.
One foster parent, who asked to be identified by her initials due to her previous experiences as the subject of hotline reports, said she had cared for numerous children over the past several years. C.B., age 41, said it wasn’t until 2020, when a 3-month-old came into her care, that she was falsely accused of leaving children under the age of 5 at home by themselves.
“The process is disruptive to everybody that’s involved, especially when there’s other children at home,” she said. C.B. said ultimately, the allegation was determined to be unfounded, and she continues to serve as a licensed foster parent.
The coalition said the threat can also be a financial burden: In New York, foster parents have to carry costly liability insurance to protect them from the possible impact of baseless allegations, and they receive no reimbursement from the state for these costs. If they can’t afford the protection, advocates say, these professional caregivers have to fend for themselves while they navigate investigations of their homes.
“Allowing anonymous reporting works against parents’ constitutional rights and imposes emotional and financial burdens,” the coalition reported. “Parents — many of whom already may be coping with financial and emotional pressures as a result of poverty, unstable housing, food insecurity, and lack of social support — may find themselves under even greater stress as they struggle to address anonymously reported allegations that research makes clear are not likely to be substantiated.”
And the children often end up paying the price, the foster parent group concluded. Following these false reports, “children suffer when unnecessarily subjected to questioning, physical exams and at times temporary removal.”
Advocates for parents also say the unnecessary time and expense spent on baseless calls sucks precious resources from strapped child welfare agencies, distracting caseworkers from the urgent cases.
“You’re wasting valuable time,” said Hanuszczak, who said she was wrongfully reported to CPS, “while there are kids dying on the other line.”
Bill would address false reports
Legislative attempts to remedy the problem five years ago failed to pass. Senate Bill 2987 would have established civil penalties of up to $5,000 for a first violation, and up to $10,000 for continuous violations against people knowingly making false reports of suspected child abuse or neglect.
The bill now before the Legislature takes a different approach. It states that all callers making a report of suspected child maltreatment shall be asked for their name and contact information. That information would be kept confidential, but unless it is received, the report would not be transmitted to a local child welfare agency for investigation.
Family Court attorneys who support the bill authored by state Sen. Jabari Brisport (D) say it would protect parents from unfair harassment, and allow child welfare workers to conduct investigations with more complete and reliable information.
The law must pass both houses of the Legislature by May 31, and if signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), would take effect immediately.
Child protection workers have up to 60 days to investigate maltreatment reports. During that time, city workers are allowed to interview neighbors, family members and any other parties related to the allegation. They can search throughout family homes, and conduct interviews and visual inspections of children’s bodies.
False reports still drive far too many of these often invasive inquiries, advocates say. In New York City last year, more than 7% of child protection investigations were prompted by anonymous reports, according to the Administration for Children’s Services. Of those, almost 11% were substantiated, less than one-third the rate of substantiation for all reports.
Family Court attorneys said they’ve seen clients become so anxious they’ve had to quit jobs and even move to escape the misuse of CPS as a form of harassment.
“First and foremost it is traumatic to the children involved, as well as the mental and emotional health of the parents and our families,” C.B. said. “People don’t consider the post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from these experiences.”
The Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit law firm representing kids in custody, visitation and Family Court proceedings, noted in a 2021 study that one of their litigants “was a wreck,” jumping “every time the doorbell rang.”
The study, “When Litigants Cry Wolf,” described the direct harm to children fearful during investigations and their aftermath.
“Children involved in a child abuse or neglect investigation ‘may not know what’s going to happen in the examination or the interview,’ which can be particularly traumatic because children are taught from a young age ‘not to talk to or trust strangers,’” the article noted, “‘and not to let strangers touch their bodies; and these are strangers.’”