Over the first four columns in this series, I’ve focused on “upstream” investments that can minimize stress on families and increase family support. But child welfare also entangles families because overly broad mandated reporting laws fuel hyper-surveillance.
In New York City, 44% of Black children, 43% of Latino children and 19% of white children experience an investigation in childhood. It’s just not plausible that this many children require state intervention — and they don’t. The clearest proof is that 71% of investigations do not result in a finding of substantiated abuse or neglect.
Cutting down needless investigations is possible. Research shows that many mandated reporters call child protection hotlines just to get help for families, even though child welfare’s legal mandate is much more serious and narrow: to intervene when children are in danger.
The “unintended abolition” initiated by the pandemic made clear that we can substantially reduce investigations without risk to children. All forms of child welfare intervention dropped precipitously, yet there is no indication that New York City children were less safe in the absence of scrutiny.
Since then, though, investigations have crept back up nearly to 2019 levels. Sustaining lower investigation rates will require structural change.
Some advocates have called for the end of all mandated reporting and the repeal of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), the federal law passed in 1974 that first required all states to construct a mandatory reporting scheme. In New York City, incremental reforms have included legislation to require informed consent in drug testing and to replace anonymous with confidential reporting to limit false and malicious reports. New York’s city and state child welfare agencies also have acknowledged the problem and taken initial corrective steps.
State law requires that reporters have “reasonable cause to suspect” abuse or neglect, with neglect defined as physical, mental or emotional impairment or “imminent danger” of impairment because of a parent’s failure to “exercise a minimum degree of care.”
This standard is clearly not rigorously enforced. Consider the reporting patterns of seven elementary schools in the Bronx in the 2007-08 school year. They were all in the same zip code and sent attendance warnings to a similar percent of their students but had wildly different rates of reporting “educational neglect.” Three schools made zero hotline calls and the others less than a handful. But one school reported 30 students, or 5% of its population, and the other called 49 times, reporting 16% of its student body. An ACS review of high-volume reporters since then has found similarly wide disparities.
The law also defines neglect as failing to provide food, clothing, or shelter “though financially able to do so or offered financial or other reasonable means.” For the families in the 6,000 New York City investigations that included this allegation in 2019, it’s unlikely that happened. As one parent wrote recently about living in a family shelter:
“I didn’t tell anybody what was going on because I was scared to get an ACS case. We ate peanut butter for six days…It could have escalated. They finally came in while I was food shopping…the caseworker said, ‘I was going to call ACS because there was no food here.’”
Legally, shelter staff should have had to offer support before the State Central Registry would accept a report on this mother.
High rates of investigations have devastating impacts on families and whole communities. Professionals who are supposed to help families are seen as having the power to harm them, and families go to great lengths to avoid a potential report. As one parent wrote:
“Being scared of the child welfare system has an impact on almost everything I do. Every move I make has to be given careful thought—what doctors I go to and what I tell a doctor or therapist.”
Flooding investigators with calls on minor issues also makes children less safe, distracting investigators from serious harm and diverting funds that could be spent on family support. Investigations alone cost at least $300 million each year in New York City. Even so, New York’s state Legislature did not move on bills to address overreporting.
Short of ending mandated reporting, New York has a number of options to draw back surveillance.
One option is to simply enforce the law more rigorously. “Imminent danger” is a powerful standard. Clearly, a problem that could be solved with a referral to a food pantry or a couple hundred dollars doesn’t meet it. ACS has started to re-train all school reporters to support families when a child is not actually in danger and now takes calls to its preventive unit for help finding community resources. Soon, New York’s state child welfare agency will roll out similar new trainings for all mandated reporters. It could go further by drawing a firm line in rejecting calls.
It’s also possible to require that some mandated reporters affirmatively support families before calling in a report. Already, a 2018 law requires that school personnel work with families to address children’s absences before reporting educational neglect. That might mean helping parents with transportation or supporting a school transfer related to safety concerns. Hotline staff are expected to push back on these reports, asking: “What steps have you taken to address the problem?” Only if parents have refused to take action can the state accept the call.
Beyond teachers, the highest volume of hotline calls come from medical and mental health professionals and social service personnel — primary care providers with a mission to care for children and families. These callers misreport maltreatment 60 percent of the time. The law could be expanded to require these mandated reporters to proactively support families before alleging neglect.
A far more transformative approach would be to entirely eliminate a prosecutorial approach to neglect. That would mean replacing investigations with a process of planning for a family’s care that doesn’t mimic criminal processes of proving “allegations” that last on parents’ “records.” Significantly, this would be a turn away from the assumptions embedded in our current statutes — that poverty is a choice and that parents who are struggling intend to harm their children.
To some degree, differential response (called CARES in New York City) is a step toward that. In neglect cases deemed low risk, specially trained child protective staff call a family to set up a meeting and discuss potential resources. In recent months, 400 to 500 families have been routed to CARES and ACS will double this staffing in the next year. Yet differential response still relies on strangers with terrifying power to intervene in families. True transformation would be to work toward a completely voluntary, restorative approach that relies on parents, youth and people in their lives to initiate support processes outside of the system where families retain control over how to address challenges.
These frameworks for limiting reports are already enacted within organizations that have close ties to the communities they serve. Many groups rarely, if ever, make hotline calls. Instead, they’ve developed their own safety protocols. They train staff to bring family concerns up the chain of command, marshal senior staff to coordinate sustained support and accountability, contact trusted community partners and devote resources, such as paying for family needs, from laundry to therapy.
As Amelia Frank, director of training for Community Connections for Youth in the Bronx told Rise:
“Part of the reason we spend so much time building relationships is so we can have honest conversations around what’s non-negotiable—but we can help with seeing what option feels right to them and how can we support them.”
The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey requires staff to speak to a team member well-versed in the law before making a call — and has only reported one person in 10 years. Executive Director Diana Autin explained:
“Some people think that if a child is living in an apartment with water running down the walls, they should report that. No, what they should do is report the landlord, not the family.”
By examining how groups effectively de-escalate potential crises and support safety, these informal practices can become formalized, staffed and resourced in schools, pediatric clinics and other settings.
Several models to improve family resource access also have been developed and evaluated. Pediatric medical-legal partnerships embed lawyers with pediatricians to address health issues, such as lack of food or unsafe housing conditions, which can also lead to child welfare involvement. Similarly, the DULCE model pairs pediatricians with family specialists who help families meet needs.
Another approach is parent peer support. Parent peer advocate programs like SPAN-NJ’s Special Education Volunteer Advocates program and Norwalk ACTS’ Community Advocate model have shown promise in enabling schools to lean on parent peer supporters to assist families. Importantly, peer supporters are typically not mandated reporters.
Legislation and investments in community support pathways can be symbiotic. Both not only spare families the terror of investigations, but also shift responsibility for family support back to community ties, strengthening the social fabric. By calling the hotline, professionals shift the time burden, responsibility, potential liability and cost of offering help. At the same time, they sacrifice relationship. Parents who could be helped by someone who knows their family end up getting investigated by strangers with the power of the state behind them. A better approach would be to build the support capacity of those closest to a family.
Every proposal here is significant — even just enforcing the law — and freighted with some fear. It’s inevitable that child welfare systems make the wrong call at times about families; the work is intimate and unpredictable, and even tight families lose their loved ones to suicide, to overdoses, to other violence. Given the human and political consequences of a misstep, it can be tempting to minimize the harm of surveillance and justify the status quo.
That said, New York City has been here before. When the trauma of removal became undeniable, the city committed to the riskier proposition of prevention because it’s better for children and families. We know now that the collateral consequences of investigations are too high. It’s time for the city and state to go beyond training and take the risk of using every tool available to replace reports with support.