TESTIMONY OF DR. D.J.BESHAROV; SELECT COMMITTEE ON CHILDREN, YOUTH, AND FAMILIES, MARCH 3, 1987
TESTIMONY OF DR. D.J.BESHAROV; SELECT COMMITTEE ON CHILDREN, YOUTH, AND
FAMILIES, MARCH 3, 1987
Thank you for inviting me to testify before you today. The Select
Committee has been an important force for bringing attention to the
needs of children, youth, and families. Besides your many other
contributions, Mr. Chairman, I know that your personal efforts were
singularly responsible for child sexual abuse being a matter of
specific federal action. And, from my work on welfare reform, I know of
Congressman Coats' deep concern over family breakdown and its personal
and societal consequences.
In accordance with Mr. Miller's letter of invitation to me, I will
be focusing my remarks on the problem of "unfounded" reports. However,
before doing so, I want to emphasize the importance of strong child
protective efforts at the state and local level--and of strong yet
flexible leadership at the national level.
The nation's child protective capacity is many times greater now
than it was ten short years ago. Given the choice between what things
were like then and what things are like now, I would unhesitantly chose
our present system--warts and all. But that is not to say that we
cannot try to do better. That is the spirit in which I hope that you
will take my remarks.
In the past twenty years, there has been an enormous expansion of
programs to protect abused and neglected children, in large part
encouraged by federal funding. In 1985, more than 1.9 million children
were reported to the authorities as suspected victims of child abuse
and neglect. This is more than twelve times the estimated 150,000
children reported in 1963. Specialized "child protective agencies"
have been established in all major population centers. Federal and
state expenditures for child protective programs and associated foster
care services now exceeds $3.5 billion a year.
In part because of the impetus of the federal Child Abuse
Prevention and Treatment Act, there now exists a nationwide
infrastructure of laws and agencies to protect endangered children--and
it has made a difference. Increased reporting and specialized child
protective agencies have saved many thousands of children from death
and serious injury. The best estimate is that, nationwide, child abuse
deaths are down from 2-3,000 a year to about 1,000 a year. In New York
State, for example, within five years of the passage of a comprehensive
reporting law which also mandated the creation of specialized
investigative Staffs, there was a fifty percent reduction in child
fatalities, from about 200 a year to fewer than 100.
Nevertheless, there are still major problems--which threaten to
undo past improvements.
Of the estimated one thousand children who die under circumstances
suggestive of parental maltreatment each year, between 35 and 50
percent were previously reported to child protective agencies. Many
thousands of other children suffer serious injuries after their plight
becomes known to the authorities.
At the same time, about 65% of all reports are labelled unfounded
(or a similar term) after investigation. This, by the way, is in sharp
contrast to 1975, when only about 35% of all reports were "unfounded."
As I will try to describe, these two problems are connected--and
can be addressed by an amendment to the federal child abuse act.
Unfounded Reports Hurt Families
Unfortunately, the determination that a report is unfounded can
only be made after an unavoidably traumatic investigation that is,
inherently, a breach of parental and family privacy. To determine
whether a particular child is in danger, caseworkers must inquire into
the most intimate personal and family matters. Often, it is necessary
to question friends, relatives, and neighbors, as well as school
teachers, day care personnel, doctors, clergymen, and others who know
Richard Wexler, a reporter in Rochester, New York, tells what
happened to Kathy and Alan Heath (not their real names): "Three times
in as many years, someone--they suspect an `unstable' neighbor--has
called in anonymous accusations of child abuse against them. All three
times, those reports were determined to be `unfounded,' but only after
painful investigations by workers. . . . The first time the family was
accused, Mrs. Heath says, the worker `spent almost two hours in my
house going over the allegations over and over again. . . . She went
through everything from a strap to an iron, to everything that could
cause bruises, asking me if I did those things. [ After she left] I sat
on the floor and cried my eyes out. I couldn't believe that anybody
could do that to me. `Two more such investigations followed."
"The Heaths say that even after they were `proven innocent' three
times, the county did nothing to help them restore their reputation
among friends and neighbors who had been told, as potential
`witnesses,' that the Heaths were suspected of child abuse."
Laws against child abuse are an implicit recognition that family
privacy must give way to the need to protect helpless children. But in
seeking to protect children, it is all too easy for courts and social
agencies to ignore the legitimate rights of parents. Each year, over
500,000 families are put through investigations of unfounded reports.
This is a massive and unjustified violation of parental rights. As
Supreme Court Justice Brandies warned in a different context,
"experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when
the government 's purposes are beneficent."
I have also taken the liberty of attaching a case history of
another troubling case.
Some Unfounded Reports Are Necessary
There are, of course, many reasons for the high unfounded
rate--evidence of child maltreatment is hard to obtain, overworked and
inadequately trained workers may not uncover the evidence that does
exist, and many cases are labelled unfounded as a means of caseload
control or when there are no services available to help the family.
Moreover, a certain level of unfounded reporting is necessary to
make the system work; it is an inherent--and legitimate--aspect of
reporting suspected child maltreatment. WE ask hundreds of thousands of
strangers to report their suspicions we do not ask that they be
These realities, it seems to me, make an unfounded rate of 30-40
percent acceptable. It is the last 20 to 30 percent of unfounded
reports that is the cause for concern. For the reasons I will describe,
they could be removed from the system without threatening the
fundamental mission of child protective agencies. The failure to do so
imperils the future credibility of child protective efforts.
The current flood of unfounded reports is overwhelming the limited
resources of child protective agencies. For fear of missing even one
abused child, workers perform extensive investigations of vague and
apparently unsupported reports. Even when a home visit based on an
anonymous report turns up no evidence of maltreatment , they usually
interview neighbors, school teachers, and day care personnel to make
sure that the child is not abused. And, even repeated anonymous and
unfounded reports do not prevent a further investigation, as the Heath
case illustrates. But all this takes time.
As a result, children in real danger are getting lost in the press
of inappropriate cases. Forced to allocate a substantial portion of
their limited resources to unfounded reports, child protective agencies
are increasingly unable to respond promptly and effectively when
children are in serious danger.
Ironically. by weakening the system's ability to respond,
unfounded reports actually discourage appropriate reports. The sad fact
is that many responsible individuals are not reporting endangered
children because they feel that the system's response will be so weak
that reporting will do no good and, indeed, may make things worse.
According to the federal government's National Study of the Incidence
and Severity of Child Abuse and Neglect, professionals--physicians,
nurses, teachers, social workers, child care workers, and police
workers--still fail to report half of the maltreated children whom they
see. Each year, about 50,000 children with observable injuries severe
enough to require hospitalization are not reported.
Undermining Public Support
Unreasonably high unfounded rates are a public relations disaster.
Almost every journalist who covers children's issues knows that the
number of missing children was grossly exaggerated--or at least
misleading--and that the first journalist to write about it won a
Pulitzer Prize. To be blunt, many reporters are now eager to challenge
child abuse statistics and to "expose" what is really going on.
Let me tell you about a phone call I received late last year. A
local radio reporter called to ask what she could do to help her
housekeeper of ten years who had just been reported for child abuse.
The reporter said the allegations were "crazy."
The housekeeper had been summoned to her twelve-year-old son's
school because he had been misbehaving. She was required to take her
son home. As she was leaving the school yard with her son, she whacked
him across the rear with her hand . The principal saw this and made a
report of suspected abuse on the basis of that one whack--nothing
One more journalist is now convinced that there is something very wrong
with the reporting process.
The growth of VOCAL an organization of parents who claim that they
were wrongly accused of child abuse and neglect, has also been
encouraged by the high unfounded rate. VOCAL now has over 3,000
members, with chapters in more than 30 states. To the extent that VOCAL
calls for better trained child protective workers coupled with a
greater recognition of parental rights, I am a strong supporter of the
organization--regardless of the guilt or innocence of its members. But
one does not have to share this view to realize that VOCAL is becoming
a powerful political force. In Minnesota, VOCAL members collected 2,000
signatures on a petition asking the Governor to remove Scott County
prosecutor Kathleen Morris from office because of her alleged
misconduct in bringing charges, subsequently dismissed, against
twenty-four adults in Jordan, Minnesota. In Arizona, VOCAL members were
temporarily able to sidetrack a $5.4 million budget supplement which
would have added 77, investigators to local child protective agencies.
I understand that VOCAL is about to commence a national letter
writing campaign directed at the Congress. The purpose? To gain support
for amendments to the federal child abuse act that would encourage
states to do a better job protecting the rights of innocent
parents--and their children.
To ignore the present harmfully high level of unfounded reports is
to court catastrophe. In the short run, it may be possible to avoid
admitting that the reporting system has serious shortcomings. In the
long run, though, already severe problems will worsen--and become more
visible to outsiders. As more people realize that hundreds of thousands
of innocent people are having their reputations tarnished and their
privacy invaded while tens of thousands of endangered children are
going unprotected, continued support for child protective efforts will
Child protective professionals have begun to respond. At the
national level, the APWA, through its National Association of Public
Child Welfare Administrators, and the U.S. Children's Bureau, under the
leadership of Jane Burnley, have begun work on the problem of unfounded
reports. So have many states.
What should be the agenda for reform? I believe that the only way
to lower the rate of unfounded reporting is: (1) to develop improved
definitions (and guidelines) for what should be reported--and what
should not be reported, and (2) to implement these definitions through
public and professional education and through the screening of hotline
Few unfounded reports are made maliciously. Studies suggest that,
at most, from 5 to 10% are knowingly false. Many involve situations in
which the person reporting, in a well-intentioned effort to protect a
child, overreacts to a vague and often misleading possibility that the
child may be maltreated. Others involve situations of poor child care
that, though of legitimate concern, simply do not amount to child abuse
or neglect. In fact, a substantial proportion of unfounded cases are
referred to other agencies for them to provide needed services for the
Thus, we need better definitions of child abuse and neglect
(incorporated into public awareness and professional education
materials) that provide real guidance about what should be reported--or
not reported. Generalized statements about children who are "abused,"
or "neglected," or "in danger" will not do. Unfortunately, better
definitions will not come easily, for they require resolving a series
of complex technical and controversial policy issues.
Let me give just a few examples of areas in which technical work
is needed. (There are many more.)
Anonymous reports: Even though only about 15 percent of these
reports are later deemed founded, all states accept anonymous reports
because they sometimes identify children in serious danger who would
otherwise go unprotected. However, this is no reason for investigating
anonymous reports that can cite no specific reason to suspect
maltreatment. One agency accepted a report that alleged nothing more
than that "there are strange noises coming from next door."
Matrimonial and Custody Cases: Divorce and its acrimony that
frequently follows is a fertile ground for unfounded reports. Fear of
criticism--and liability--is leading agencies to accept,
unquestioningly, reports from estranged spouses. These reports cannot
be rejected out of hand because a SMALL proportion involve real danger
to children, as demonstrated by the Mammo case, described below.
However , a method must be found to screen out the vast majority of
obviously inappropriate reports.
"Reasonable" corporal punishment cases: Until very recently, it
was accurate to say that all states recognized the parental right to
engage in "reasonable" corporal punishment. But, alas, our concern to
identify children in "imminent danger," (more on that in a minute) is
leading many agencies to investigate reports that, on their face,
amount to nothing more than what courts would recognize as reasonable
corporal punishment. Many of these parents need help in child rearing,
of course, but, again, accepting and investigating the case only adds
another unfounded report to the statistics.
Behavioral Indicators: There is a tendency to consider the
so-called "behavioral indicators" of child abuse, and especially of
sexual abuse, on their own, without physical evidence, without
statements of the child or others, without anything else, as sufficient
reason to make a report. Intake workers are accepting reports from
teachers and others that "Mary is shy in class," or that "Mary is over
Behavioral indicators have a valid place in decision-making. They
provide important clues for potential reporters to pursue, and they
provide crucial corroborative evidence of maltreatment. But alone they
are an insufficient basis for a report. There are many other
explanations for such behavior. It is essential that this point be
made. Otherwise, every shy or over friendly child in the country will
Imminent Danger Cases: Agencies cannot wait until a child has
suffered serious injury before acting. That is why all states allow
reports of "imminent danger" or "threatened harm." However, the failure
to articulate the reasons for believing that a child may be in danger
of future abuse encourages vague reports that agencies feel they cannot
reject without an investigation.
Emotional Maltreatment: Once again, vague definitions--one state
defines emotional neglect to include "the failure to provide adequate
love"--encourage reports that cannot be rejected, but that are almost
invariably deemed unfounded after investigation.
The "Child Protective" Mission:
Today, child protection is at a cross roads. Across the nation,
child protective agencies are being pressed to accept categories of
cases that, traditionally, have not been considered their
responsibility--and for which their skills do not seem appropriate. In
community after community, the dearth of family oriented social
services is pushing CPS away from its traditional role as a highly
focused service for children in serious danger--and toward an all
encompassing form of child welfare services.
In essence, CPS is paying the price for its past successes.
People know that a report of possible maltreatment will result in
action. As a result, "child abuse" hotlines are being barraged by
reports that, at base, really involve adolescent truancy, delinquency,
school problems, and sexual acting out, not caused by abuse or neglect;
children who need specialized education or residential placement;
parent-child conflicts with no indication of abuse or neglect, and
chronic problems involving property, unemployment, inadequate housing,
or poor money management. Many of these reports result in the family
receiving much needed services, and many do not. But either way,
another unfounded report is added to the statistics.
In effect, CPS is being used to fill gaps in that should be a
community wide child welfare system. Some child advocates welcome this
development, because, they think, it will mean more money for
desperately needed services. But sooner or later, politicians will
recognize what is happening and will cut us back. Then, we will be in
real danger of losing the progress that has been made. Even if this
strategy were more likely to succeed, we should shun it. For, the CPS
process is a coercive often traumatic one that should be limited to
situations in which the danger to the child overrides our traditional
reluctance to force services on unwilling parents.
We must make it clear that CPS cannot be all things to all people.
Here, the major challenge will be to develop definitions that
distinguish between those child rearing situations that we think are
lees than optimal--and for which we would like to offer voluntary
services--from those that pose a clear and present danger of serious
injury--and for which we are prepared to intervene involuntarily,
through court action and removal of the child, if that is necessary.
Better definitions of reportable conditions will go only part way
in reducing the level of unfounded reports. The new definitions need to
be enforced. This is the role of intake staff.
Afraid that a case they reject will later turn into a child
fatality, most agencies now shirk their central responsibility to
screen reports before assigning them for investigation. According to
the American Humane Association, only a little more than half the
states allow their hotline workers to reject reports, and even those
that do usually limit screening to cases that are "clearly"
Imagine a 911 system that cannot distinguish between life
threatening crimes and littering. That is the condition of child abuse
hotlines. Many hotlines will accept reports even when the caller can
give no reason for suspecting that the child's condition is due to the
parent's behavior. This writer observed one hotline accept a report
that a seventeen year old boy was found in a drunken stupor. That the
boy, and perhaps his family, might benefit from counseling is not
disputable. But that hardly justifies the initiation of an involuntary,
child protective investigation.
Child protective agencies used to do much more screening. But
that was before the recent media hype and before cases like Mammo V.
Arizona, where the agency was successfully sued for the death of a
young child after the agency refused to accept a report from the
Overreacting to cases like Mammo v. Arizona, some child protective
agencies assume that they should not screen reports at all; that is,
that they must assign all reports for investigation. This is a mistake.
The proper lesson to be drawn from Mammo, and cases like it, is not
that screening reports is disallowed, but, rather, that decisions to
reject a report must be made with great care.
Just as child protective agencies have a duty to investigate
reports made appropriately to them, they also have a duty to screen out
reports for which an investigation would be clearly unwarranted. They
should reject reports whose allegations fall outside the agency's
definitions of "child abuse" and "child neglect," as established by
state law. (Often, the family has a coping problem more appropriately
referred to another social service agency.) They should also reject
reports when the caller can give no credible reason for suspecting that
the child has been abused or neglected. And, they may have to reject a
report in which insufficient information is given to identify or locate
the child (although the information may be kept for later use should a
subsequent report about the same child be made) .
The kind of intake decision-making that I am proposing cannot be
done by clerks, nor by untrained caseworkers. The agency's best workers
should be assigned to intake--where they can have the greatest impact.
In fact, I would suggest that we make assignment to intake a promotion,
in which we place our most experienced and qualified staff.
Lowering the Rhetoric:
Doing something about the problem of unfounded reports (and it
seems to be still growing) requires telling the American people that
current reporting statistics are badly inflated by unfounded reports.
Up to now, most child welfare officials--in federal, state, and local
agencies--have lacked the courage to do so, because they fear that such
honesty will discredit their efforts and lead to budget cuts.
Therefore, the necessary first step in reducing harmfully high
rates of unfounded reporting of child abuse must be a general lowering
of child abuse rhetoric. A more responsible use of statistics would be
a good start. Child maltreatment is a major social problem. Each year,
about 1,000 children die in circumstances suggestive of child
maltreatment. But its extent and severity must be kept in perspective.
We regularly hear that there are upwards of a million maltreated
children (including those that are not reported). This is a
reasonably accurate estimate, but the word "maltreatment" encompasses
much more that the brutally battered, sexually abused, or starved and
sickly children that come to mind when we think of child abuse. In 1979
and 1980, the federal government conducted a National Study of the
Incidence and Severity of Child Abuse and Neglect. According to this
Congressionally mandated study, which collected data for twelve months
from a representative sample of twenty-six counties in ten states, only
about 30 percent of all "maltreated" children are physically abused,
and only about 10 percent of these children (3 percent of the total)
suffer an injury severe enough to require professional care. Thus, 90
percent of the cases labelled "physical abuse" are really situations of
excessive or unreasonable corporal punishment which, although a matter
of legitimate government concern, are unlikely to escalate into a
serious assault against the child. (Other data from the Incidence Study
indicate that fewer than one in five of these cases presages anything
resembling child abuse or neglect, let alone serious injury to the
Sexual Abuse makes up about 7 percent of the total. This is
probably a low figure: major efforts are being made to increase the
reporting of suspected child sexual abuse.
Physical neglect makes up about 17 percent of all cases. The three
largest categories are: failure to provide needed medical care (9
percent); abandonment and other refusals of custody (4 percent); and
failure to provide food, clothing and hygiene (3 percent). Physical
neglect can be just as harmful as physical abuse. More children die of
physical neglect than from physical abuse. But, again, the number of
cases where serious physical injury has occurred is low, perhaps as low
as 4 percent of neglect cases. 1
The remainder of these cases, about half, 2 are forms of
educational neglect and emotional maltreatment. Educational neglect, at
27 percent, is the single largest category of cases. Emotional abuse,
mainly "habitual scapegoating, belittling and rejecting behavior,"
accounts for about 20 percent of the total. And various forms of
emotional neglect, defined as "inadequate nurturance" and "permitted
maladaptive behavior" are 9 percent of the total. While some forms of
emotional maltreatment are deeply damaging to children, most cases do
not create the need for aggressive intervention as do cases of serious
physical abuse or neglect.
Almost 85 percent of all cases of "child maltreatment," then,
involve excessive corporal punishment, minor physical neglect,
educational neglect, or emotional maltreatment. These are really forms
of emotional or developmental harm to children that pose no real
physical danger. Moreover, the overwhelming bulk of these cases, which
are most accurately considered forms of "social deprivation," involve
poor and minority families. Compared to the general population,
families reported for maltreatment are four times more likely to be on
public assistance 3 and almost twice as likely to be black. 4 .
Furthermore, maltreating parents tend to be the "poorest of the
poor." Most research confirms one study's finding that, as between
maltreating and non-maltreating families, the former "lived under
poorer material circumstances, had more socially and materially
deprived childhoods, were more isolated from friends and relatives, and
had more children." 5 About 30 percent of abused children live in
single parent households and are on public assistance; the comparable
figure for neglected children is about 45 percent. 6 Protecting these
children means lifting their parents from the grinding poverty within
which they live.
Recognizing these realities would go a long way toward reducing
the current hysteria about child abuse. It would also make people less
likely to believe that every bruised child is an abused child.
"Doing Something" To Improve Reporting:
Few unfounded reports are made maliciously. Most involve an honest
desire to protect children coupled with confusion about when reports
should be made. Hence, much can be done to reduce the number of
unfounded reports without discouraging reports of children in real
danger. Let me summarize the points I have tried to make in this
First, reporting laws and associated educational materials and
programs must be improved to provide practical guidance about what
should be reported--and what should not be reported. They should call
for reporting only when there is credible evidence that the parents
have already engaged in seriously harmful behavior toward their
children or that, because of severe mental disability or drug or
alcohol addiction, they are incapable of providing adequate care.
The parent's behavior need not have already seriously injured the
child for it to be considered seriously harmful. A report should be
required if the parent's behavior was capable of seriously injuring the
child. The criminal law would call such behavior an "attempt" or
"reckless endangerment . " While such terms are not applicable to child
protection (because they imply a higher degree of intent than is
necessary and because they seem to exclude situations of child neglect)
, the criminal law's fundamental reliance on past wrongful conduct as
the basis for state intervention has equal validity for child
Second, the liability provisions of state reporting laws should
also be modified. Most reporting laws penalize the negligent failure to
report while granting immunity for incorrect, but good faith, reports.
This combination of provisions encourages the overreporting of
questionable situations. Fearful of being sued for not reporting, some
professionals play it safe and report whenever they think there is the
slightest chance that they will subsequently be sued for not doing so.
To reduce this incentive for overreporting, six states already limit
civil liability to "knowing" or "willful" failures to report. All
states should do so.
Third, child abuse hotlines should fulfill their responsibility to
screen reports for initial sufficiency. They should reject reports
whose allegations fall outside the agency's definitions of "child
abuse" and "child neglect," as established by state law. They should
also reject reports when the caller can give no credible reason for
suspecting that the child has been abused or neglected or when its
unfounded or malicious nature is apparent.
Fourth, the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act
should be amended to encourage states to better protect the rights of
parents accused of abusing and neglecting their children. Since the
passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974, it has
mandated states to seek the reporting of ever greater numbers of abused
children--without regard to the validity or appropriateness of reports.
While this one dimensional approach may have been justified ten years
ago when few reports were made, these requirements have remained
essentially unchanged in the face of ever increasing numbers of
On the other hand, I would not recommend major changes in the
Act. Basically, it has served us well. And this is not the time for
major change. In this, as in all areas, a series of small, carefully
considered steps is more likely to lead us in the right direction than
is one long leap.
Therefore, I would recommend only two changes in the Act. First,
states should be required to demonstrate that they are making efforts
to encourage more accurate reporting. This would include:
(1) the preparation and dissemination of educational, and training
materials that describe what should not be reported--as well
as what should be reported, and
(2) the adoption of better screening policies and procedures for
Second, states should be required to demonstrate that they are
making efforts to prevent children from being removed from their homes
without an appropriate investigation--unless they appear to be in
imminent danger. Such a requirement would merely apply to child
protective decision-making the IV-E requirements of reasonable or
"diligent" efforts to return children who have been placed in foster
To continue to ignore the present harmfully high level of
unfounded reports is to court disaster. In the short run, it may be
possible to avoid admitting that the reporting system has serious
shortcomings. In the long rum, though, already severe problems will
worsen--and become more visible to outsiders. As more people realize
that hundreds of thousands of innocent people are having their
reputations tarnished and their privacy invaded while tens of thousands
of endangered children are going unprotected, continued support for
child protective efforts will surely erode.
Child maltreatment is a serious national problem. It need not be
exaggerated in order to gain public and political support.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you.
*Douglas J. Besharov, J.D. , LL.M. , is a Resident Scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C. He was the first
director of the U.S. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1975-
1979. His most recent book is The Vulnerable Social Worker: Liability
For Serving Children and Families (National Association of Social
Workers, Silver Spring, MD 1985).
1 American Association for Protecting Children, Highlights
of Official. Child Neglect and Abuse Reporting: 1984, p.16, Table
2 The total comes to 110 percent because there is a slight
overlap among categories of cases.
3 American Humane Association, Trends In Child Abuse and
Neglect: A National Perspective, p.24, Table IV-3 (1984).
4 Trends In child Abuse and Neglect: A National Perspective,
supra n.3, p.97, Table A-IV-7.
5 Horowitz & Wolock, "Maternal Deprivation, Child
Maltreatment, And Agency Interventions Among Poor Families," in
L. Pelton, ed., The Social Context of Child Abuse and Neglect,
pp.137, 138, 161 (1981).
6 Trends In Child Abuse and Neglect: A National Perspective,
supra n.3, at p.97, Table A-IV-7.
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