It’s long been a problem. People call child abuse hotlines with false reports as a way to harass parents without identifying themselves — a vindictive spouse, spiteful neighbor, even a scheming landlord. The calls must be screened and triaged. When serious-sounding allegations are made, a social worker must be dispatched to investigate.
But beginning next year, in the states running the nation’s largest child welfare systems, California and Texas, these anonymous callers must now be asked to identify themselves. A California law requiring this was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, and takes effect in January. Texas passed a similar law to curb anonymous reports to Child Protective Services in June, and began implementing the new rules in September.
“False reports waste time and resources that could be spent on actual cases of child abuse and they compound the suffering of families that are already struggling,” Los Angeles Democratic Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer wrote in support of his successful legislation, Assembly Bill 391.
Both Texas and California are switching to a system of “confidential reporting” which requires CPS screeners to ask all callers for information such as their name and phone number. These agencies, in turn, will keep the callers’ identity confidential.
The new Texas law also includes a protection against spurious calls, and it’s strongly worded. If a reporter of child maltreatment declines to divulge their name and contact information, state Department of Family and Protective Services workers must tell them the agency is “not authorized to accept an anonymous report of abuse or neglect.” If the reporter still wishes to make an anonymous referral, they can contact a law enforcement agency, which is required to make an audio recording of the report that could potentially be used in a felony prosecution for false reporting.
The California bill had no formal opposition, but Los Angeles County child welfare officials defend anonymous reporting as essential to child safety. And in an April legislative hearing, Republican Assemblymember Tom Lackey said AB 391 could have unintended consequences.
“Stronger investigative practices need to be the focus, not removing confidentiality,” Lackey said. “What it will do is discourage the reporting of legitimate concerns.”
Stress on families
Reports to CPS hotlines that are not based on legitimate concerns of child abuse or neglect can quickly entangle families in a complicated, stress-inducing system that disproportionately lands on Black and Indigenous families.
Federal data show that anonymous reports are a small minority of total hotline calls — most of which come from mandated reporters like doctors and teachers, who are already required to give their names. But they are less likely to be substantiated than reports by people who disclose their identities. That wastes time for hotline call center operators and CPS investigative units facing chronically high caseloads.
It can also add incalculable stress on families.
Pano Spanos, a California entertainment lawyer, is still reeling from an anonymous complaint made about him more than three years ago. In early 2020, Spanos said the building manager for his West Hollywood apartment began harassing him, in an effort to push him out of a coveted rent-controlled unit. What started with a complaint about a toy car left outside, he said, turned into threatening late-night text messages and the manager lurking outside his window.
Then, a social worker from the Department of Children and Family Services knocked on his door. The worker said she had received an anonymous report that Spanos left his 2-year-old son home alone and let him play near a second-story window. A hotline report also described frequent noises indicating domestic violence inside the apartment.
When the social worker told Spanos her agency had the power to remove his son, he said he felt “totally powerless.”
“I FELT LIKE I WAS BEING ATTACKED IN MY OWN HOME. IT’S TERRIFYING THAT THERE’S BASICALLY NO RECOURSE FOR A FALSE CLAIM.”— Pano SPANOS
About a month later, after three meetings with the child welfare agency — including one that involved a private interview with his toddler — the investigation was deemed unfounded, he said. During a civil proceeding months later, the building manager admitted to calling the Los Angeles County hotline.
The impact of what Spanos described as a trumped-up child maltreatment claim has left a lasting mark. He had to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees and take out a restraining order on his manager. His son, now 5, is still distrustful of strangers, he added.
“I felt like I was being attacked in my own home,” Spanos said. “It’s terrifying that there’s basically no recourse for a false claim.”
Growing protection from false claims
Efforts to better vet calls to CPS hotlines are growing nationwide. Over the past year at least six states have proposed legislation similar to the laws passed in California and Texas, including New York, Kentucky, Colorado, New Hampshire, Montana and Mississippi.
The issue has bipartisan support. Conservative groups that advocate for parental rights in schools have backed the bill, including the well-heeled American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC. The council, which writes conservative model bill language and pushes it through lobbyists and right-leaning politicians, created a template for states in 2021. Its Confidential Reporting Act would require “the reporter’s personal information in order to submit a report,” and “further establish a legal penalty for someone intentionally providing false information.”
Social justice advocates have different concerns with anonymous reporting, and focus on the unfair burden on low-income people of color and the harm caused to women who’ve survived domestic violence. In a 2021 report, the national nonprofit Children’s Rights listed eliminating anonymous reporting as one of nine ways the child welfare system could stem the disproportionate share of Black children who enter foster care.
Shalonda Curtis-Hackett, a parent advocate with the New York-based JMACforFamilies, is among those who’ve told New York lawmakers about their personal experiences with false CPS reports. At a 2021 legislative hearing she testified that the practice is “weaponized against Black and brown families at an alarming rate.”
“This is not about the safety of your children,” she said. “This is about power and control.”
New York is now among the states considering clamping down. Legislation introduced by democratic lawmakers would require callers alleging child abuse or neglect to leave their names and contact information. The bill has yet to receive a full vote in the state Legislature, but parents and former foster youth have continued pressing lawmakers, most recently in an emotional public hearing last month.
‘A pretty quick fix’
Albany Law School assistant law professor Dale Margolin Cecka was among the first to document anonymous reporting nearly a decade ago. In an influential 2014 journal article, she wrote that members of the public lack training on how to accurately identify signs of child neglect and abuse, and may do more harm than good by placing a call to authorities.
Cecka, who directs her law school’s Family Violence Litigation Clinic, said child welfare agencies should do more to corroborate anonymous CPS reports before launching investigations — unannounced visits that can be frightful and destabilizing. She praised the new laws in California and Texas that aim to tackle the problem, describing them as the first step in narrowing the “front door” of an often far-too-expansive child welfare system.
“You’ve got to start somewhere and this one is a pretty quick fix,” Cecka said. “I don’t think it’s hard to get most people on board with the idea that anonymous reports usually do nothing but open up families to needless investigation.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child welfare agencies received nearly 4 million reports of child abuse and neglect in 2021. Professionals including doctors, teachers and police officers who are mandated reporters submitted 67% of those hotline calls. Seven percent were from anonymous sources, with the remainder coming from parents, relatives, friends and neighbors who left their names as well as some unknown sources.
The child maltreatment investigations that result from hotline calls have persistent racial disparities. Black and Indigenous children are twice as likely to be investigated by a CPS agency than their white peers, and they are also far more likely to be separated from parents.
To be sure, the vast majority of all types of calls to CPS hotlines do not pan out as verifiable maltreatment that has harmed or poses a risk of harm to a child. That said, the limited data available in some local systems shows that anonymous reporting has even lower substantiation rates than the average call.
According to New York state data, in 2022, just 8% of child maltreatment reports were found to be credible, compared with roughly 21% of all calls.
In California, a statement emailed to The Imprint by a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services noted an expansive list of people who make anonymous reports to CPS hotlines, including “neighbors, extended family and, at times, persons who live in a home but do not want to be identified as the source of problematic allegations.”
The county spokesperson said “anonymous reports contribute significantly to child safety.”
In 2022, Los Angeles County’s Child Protection Hotline — covering by far the largest swath of the nation’s most-populous state — received 10,540 anonymous reports. Of those, roughly 10% were “substantiated,” compared with 16% for all child maltreatment reports.
The agency has vowed to step up its “screening practices” when hotline calls are made, which it described as a better approach to “banning anonymous reports altogether.” In cases that appear to be “baseless accusations,” and those involving housing or food assistance needs, families can be diverted early on from the child welfare system, the county spokesperson said.
California’s new law will require that county child welfare agency staff answering hotline calls request identifying information from non-mandated reporters. If the caller refuses, they must be asked to give a reason, and be reminded that their personal information will remain confidential.
“AB 391, therefore, allows DCFS to investigate reports of suspected child abuse or neglect when a non-mandated reporter chooses to remain anonymous,” the spokesperson clarified.
But if the law banned such reports altogether, there could have been unintended consequences, she said — agreeing with the Republican lawmaker: “the loss of 1,000 legitimate reports per year.”
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