The state’s new message: ‘You don’t have to report a family to support a family.”
For years, New York family advocates have called for changes to mandated reporting laws that result in far too many unfair allegations of maltreatment flooding the state’s child protection hotline. The heaviest impact falls on people of color and families struggling with poverty.
Now, in a sign that state leaders agree, New York’s Office of Children and Family Services has revised its mandated reporter training for professional groups required by state law to report suspected child abuse and neglect. The new training that will be provided statewide to doctors, teachers and others who frequently call the hotline aims to root out the “implicit bias component” of reports logged into the Statewide Central Register of Abuse and Maltreatment, known as the SCR.
State leaders bluntly asserted the new updates are long overdue.
“For years, the message to mandated reporters has been ‘when in doubt, call the SCR,’” Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu, a deputy commissioner of the state’s division of child welfare and community services, said in a press release. “This has resulted in a staggering increase of abuse and maltreatment reports that not only are unwarranted in the first place, but in many cases were based solely on race and poverty. Black and Latinx populations have suffered for decades due to being disproportionately targeted by the child welfare system under these guidelines.”
Ghartey Ogundimu, joining leaders of the New York State Education Department leaders and pediatric emergency doctors, announced the new training in a rare public announcement at the Albany Medical Center Wednesday. The event was streamed online.
The state’s central register receives calls 24 hours a day from mandated reporters and the public. Local CPS workers respond to those calls that warrant an investigation.
But Ghartey Ogundimu says there is an overreliance on the register, noting that the reporting system “has ballooned into a system where we have more children and families who are coming to us for needs they could have gotten elsewhere.” Of the 100,000 calls made to the state central register last year, only about 27% were actually “indicated” for maltreatment, meaning the claim was substantiated, according to the Office of Child and Family Services.
One example Ghartey Ogundimu provided was a recent call from a Rockland County hospital about a mother who had just delivered a baby and didn’t have a car seat to take the infant home.
“Normally, that could have gone to the state’s central register, but we were able to navigate it and figure out how to find a resource for that family,” Ghartey Ogundimu said.
A new tagline sums up the new philosophy, she shared: ‘You don’t have to report a family to support a family.”
The state’s revised two-hour online, free training must be taken before April 1, 2025 by 50 professional groups who are required under state law to be mandated reporters, including teachers, police officers, social workers, child care workers and doctors.
“These are the hardest decisions in the world to make. I so value that this training is going to make it easier for people on the front line.”—New York State Education Department Assistant Commissioner Kathleen DeCataldo
Besides implicit bias training, updates to the required training include information about where to direct a family to community-based programs or resources through the “HEARS” family line, a hotline that operates Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and refers families to resources for food, clothing, housing, medical and behavioral health care services, parenting education and childcare.
The updated training includes information about the impact of adverse childhood experiences — known as ACEs — that state leaders say will teach mandated reporters about the danger of subjecting a family unnecessarily to a child protective services investigation.
The new training will also help develop “improved skills to recognize signs of abuse and maltreatment in virtual settings with the increase of online schooling and telemedicine since the pandemic,” according to a public statement.
On Wednesday, New York State Education Department Assistant Commissioner Kathleen DeCataldo described the “difficult balance” for teachers and other professionals tasked with determining when to report suspected child maltreatment — sensitive issues that range from a child missing meals to signs of physical and sexual abuse that can result in an unannounced visit to their homes by a social worker.
“These are the hardest decisions in the world to make,” DeCataldo said. “I so value that this training is going to make it easier for people on the front line.”
Pat O’Brien, executive director of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition in New York, said he was “stunned” to hear the state’s announcement and the move toward preventing calls to the state central register. O’Brien counts himself among those with longstanding concerns.
“It totally disproportionately impacts poor people, particularly poor people of color,” O’Brien said. Far too often, he said, reports of maltreatment center on a parent’s lack of resources rather than actual child abuse.
It may be hard for people who are not struggling with poverty to understand how often parents are faced with impossible choices — such as a parent who leaves their child home alone because they can’t afford day care, he added. But rather than connecting them with subsidized child care, those parents can be reported for neglect, he said. That ties up the investigating case workers, potentially diverting them from children who may actually need to be taken into foster care for their own protection.
“Spending so much time on those cases, we’re not spending time on actual cases of abuse,” O’Brien said.
Responding to the state’s new messaging around calls to the child protection hotline, O’Brien said he credits the groups of parent activists who have long advocated for change to mandated reporting and pushed state leaders in this new direction.
“This is exactly what they’ve been talking about for many years,” O’Brien said.
In a statement released today, the acting commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, Suzanne Miles-Gustave, acknowledged the impact of the register on families of color in her state.
“We understand how important this training is for the Black and Latinx communities we serve,” she said. “New York State recognizes that mandated reporters provide a key defense for vulnerable children. However, a family’s race and/or lack of adequate financial resources should never be the basis for a call to the SCR.”
Miles-Gustave went on to state that the updated training “is not only a step in the right direction, it is downright necessary to put an end to the practice of punishing race and poverty.”
Still, the revised training is not a complete solution, advocates insist. Future changes do not right the wrongs of the past caused by the overuse of the hotline, they say, because some calls may have added trauma and family separation to generations of New Yorkers.
What’s more, far too often reports from abusive or vindictive former partners, landlords, or others with bad intentions are weaponized to harm parents or foster parents. According to a March 2022 report by the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition, such calls represent a high number of all reports to the central register and they are rarely substantiated. In 2019, for example, 7% of the more than 150,000 calls to the register were from anonymous sources, and only 3% of those calls were substantiated. Eliminating the ability for people to make anonymous complaints could minimize that problem, the report’s authors state.
Many advocates and experts also want New York and other states to go further by ending altogether the legal requirement that requires a growing number of professions to act as mandated reporters. An October NBC and ProPublica investigation noted at least 36 states where laws have expanded the list of those required to report abuse or neglect suspicions, creating what experts describe as “a vast family surveillance apparatus, turning educators, health care workers, therapists and social services providers into the eyes and ears of a system that has the power to take children from their parents.”
Kathryn Krase, a lawyer and social worker in New York who provides training to organizations about the mandated reporting requirements and has extensively researched the impacts of mandated reporting, agreed. She is among those who have spent years pushing the state to change the training.
“Mandated training in the past has caused monumental harm to families,” she said, adding that while the recent revisions are a “clear shift” away from the focus of the last 30 years: “We can’t train ourselves out of the problems of mandated reporting.”
Krase said “after almost 20 years of waiting for this —I don’t think this is enough of a change to protect families,” Krase said. “I don’t see this training as changing a culture of surveillance.”
It may be hard for people who are not struggling with poverty to understand how often parents are faced with impossible choices — such as a parent who leaves their child home alone because they can’t afford day care.
Nationwide, child welfare leaders are exploring options to move away from unnecessary surveillance and toward foster care prevention and support services for struggling families that do not involve removing children from home.
A recent memo from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families announced federal grant funding for an agency to help develop best practices for educating child abuse hotline workers and mandated reporters on the difference between poverty-related concerns and “willful neglect.” The federal agency noted in its announcement that there has been a “growing national awareness and interest in encouraging mandated reporters to become ‘mandated supporters,’ whereby equal importance is placed on supporting families who would benefit from economic and concrete supports to avoid unnecessary contact with the child welfare system.”
At the public event today, the state’s Ghartey Ogundimu acknowledged that there has been a national conversation about “abolishing child welfare” entirely.
“We understand the conversation and what’s behind that, but we know there are a number of families for whom intervention — child protective services and foster care — can save lives,” she said, acknowledging that at the same time: “there are families who don’t need this intrusive intervention.”
Madison Hunt contributed to this report.