Making Matters Worse
The reporting crusade wrought other unintended consequences as well, among them an increase in the abuse and neglect of children by the very system designed to protect them. Stein and Rzepnicki (1983) explain that the possibility state action could have negative consequences for youngsters and their families was not seriously entertained, nor had the effects of state action been systematically monitored during earlier years. While courts and child-caring agencies have historically been considered as benevolent, and acting to protect children and further their best interests: “Evidence gathered in recent years has shown that intervention by child welfare agencies may exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, family difficulties” (p. 284). This growing body of evidence, they argue, “forces a reconsideration of the previously unquestioned assumption that actions taken by state agencies are ipso facto beneficial.”
As Lindsey (1994) explains, with the shifting emphasis placed on child abuse investigation, “the [caseworker] was unmistakably cast in the role of inquisitor prying into and judging the affairs of the family, with predictably adverse effects on the family” (p. 98). Dysfunctional families “may experience considerable stress with the occurrence of seemingly minor events,” notes the Reference Manual for the Pennsylvania Model of Risk Assessment (Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, undated). “The mere presence of the social worker can trigger a family crisis.”
If the mere presence of a social worker can trigger a family crisis, imagine what a full-blown child abuse investigation may do. Besharov (1985) explains that even 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. Dana Mack (1997) notes that caseworkers will typically enter a home for the first time at an odd hour, with no previous announcement, giving no information about the nature of the charge held against the family, nor who has made it. The homes of accused families are always checked, with refrigerators opened and the bathrooms inspected. Neighbors and school personnel are questioned about the family, particularly about the reputation, behavior and habits of the parents. Nor is it unusual in some jurisdictions for child welfare workers to enter homes in the middle of the night, stripping children naked and probing their genitals for evidence of abuse. Investigations may involve repeated and relentless interrogations of children, and a battery of psychological testing for both the parents and their children. These tests are often conducted by a parade of court-appointed psychologists and therapists.
Thomas Sowell (1995) observes that, by the time an investigation has run its course, children have been strip-searched, interrogated by a stream of social workers, police officers, and prosecutors, psychologically tested, and sometimes placed in foster care. Such actions usually occur without search warrants, parental consent, court hearings, or official charges-and often solely on the basis of the anonymous telephone call. Even in the event that a report is ultimately unfounded, a family has been subjected to enormous stress factors. As Elizabeth Hutchinson (1990) explains:
Investigation of a report of child maltreatment is not an innocuous intrusion into family life. By the time an investigation is complete, the family has had to cope with anxieties in both their formal and informal support systems alerted to state suspicion of their parenting. Even if the report is expunged from the central registry due to lack of substantiation, it is seldom expunged from the mind of the family-or from the memories of persons in the support system.
Child development experts Goldstein, Solnit, Goldstein, and Freud (1996) note that, “by its intervention, the state may make a bad situation worse: indeed it may even turn a tolerable situation or even a good situation into a bad one” (Besharov, 1987; see also Goldstein et al., 1996, p. 92).
The clientele primarily “serviced” by child protection agencies may be particularly vulnerable to having a bad situation worsen. Empirical research corroborates the association between social class and the physical abuse and neglect of children (Hagedorn, 1995; Lindsey, 1994; Pelton, 1978). Child abuse has always been concentrated in areas of greatest poverty, where stress is more common. Family income is among the best predictors for both investigation and child removal (Fein & Maluccio, 1992; Lindsey, 1994). The families which become known to public child welfare agencies through the reporting of child abuse and neglect are largely the poorest of the poor, and the children in foster care come predominantly from such families (Horowitz & Wolock, 1981; Pelton, 1992; Testa & Goerge, 1988). The reasons for this are clear, as Van Hooris and Gilbert (1998) explain: “The frustration and stresses that accompany unemployment, poverty, inadequate housing, and continual insecurities of lower-socio-economic status contribute to a volatile environment in which children are at risk of abuse and neglect.”
Add to this already volatile mix a child abuse or neglect investigation with the possibility of child removal looming as imminent and the results are predictable. The mere presence of a social worker or other authority may exacerbate an already dysfunctional or stressful family situation, tipping the marginalized parent toward an act of physical violence which may not have otherwise occurred absent the anger, fear or frustration imposed by the investigation itself. Yale Professor Edward Zigler, testifying before Congress during the 1970s, addressed this issue, saying that he was “beginning to see some people who we are driving to the brink of psychosis because of these [reporting] laws.” Zigler found these early trends to be both troubling and potentially counterproductive, for even during this early period we were already reaching a phenomenon of the sort in which: “Somebody reports a parent; then the parent abuses the child again for getting her in trouble.” Zigler explained that this was “clinically occurring everywhere” at the time (Committee on Education and Labor, 1977).
Research into this area is problematic. After all, who would believe the word of an accused child abuser claiming to have been pushed toward such action by the stresses imposed by an investigation? The situation poses something of a classic chicken or the egg dilemma for the researcher, as an act of violence, or worse, a child fatality following an investigation seemingly provides the “proof” that the family was being properly investigated to begin with, and that the caseworker “missed something.”
Consider the case of an Iraqi family who became refugees in 1991 after their home was bombed during the Persian Gulf War. They reportedly lived in tents in Saudi Arabia for more than three years before the United Nations brought them to Nebraska in 1994. A year later, the family moved to Detroit, drawn by the area’s large Arab-American and Muslim communities. A teacher from Nebraska had kept in touch with one of the daughters, a former student, and called Detroit authorities to report suspicions that the parents might be abusing some of their children. Detroit police went to the home to interview the children and the parents. Finding nothing wrong, the police left. The Detroit Free Press (Krodel, 1998) describes what happened next:
After they were gone, the father — angry, frightened and insulted by the visit — said he wanted to know who said what to the teacher in Nebraska. An argument erupted. Two of the teenage daughters started pointing fingers at each other, and eventually the 16-year-old tried to leave the house, the family’s attorney said. Her parents and an older brother tried to stop her.
Neighbors heard screams and saw the girl in the street with her clothes torn and called police.
Police then took four daughters — ages 3, 12, 14 and 16 — into protective custody. Ten days later, three more children-sons ages 5, 8 and 10-were taken into custody. The four children over age 18 remained in the home. The situation has been especially difficult because neither parent speaks English.
In this instance, the vague concerns of a former teacher many miles distant first brought the family to the attention of Detroit authorities. While it may be argued that the case raises some valid concerns about the family’s functioning, it may also be argued that it was the mere presence of the authorities in the home which exacerbated the family’s functioning to the extent that further intervention became a consideration. Moreover, once removal of the children became a consideration, the authorities may have been negligent by virtue of having failed to adequately weigh the consequences of removal against the alternative of leaving the family intact in terms of which option provided the least detrimental alternative for the children.
Consider the results of this intervention: The children were spread out over four foster homes. While in foster care, a 3-year-old girl was burned with an iron, her depressed 16-year-old sister mutilated her own arm, and their 12-year-old sister was seen with a 16-year-old boy who had his pants down, prompting concerns that the girl had been raped. To make matters worse, a non-Muslim foster parent gave the older girls crosses, which was interpreted by the Muslim and Arab communities — which had over time become involved in the case — as a sign that the children were being deprived of their Muslim faith.
Compounding the difficulties of research into this area of inquiry is the industry’s continued reliance on what Hagedorn (1995, p. 63) euphemistically refers to as “medical model gimmicks” drawn as a consequence of its continued reliance on Freudian models of psychopathology (Billingsley & Giovannoni, 1972; Johnson, 1991). The relation between social work and popular psychotherapy “is the most significant issue facing the profession today.” Social services, both public and private, are organized to make individualized psychotherapeutic forms of helping the most significant service they have to offer, hence: “Whether we are dealing with child abuse and neglect, addictions, loneliness, anxiety, economic dependency, or other physical and mental disabilities, it is psychotherapeutically oriented work with individuals that is considered to be the key” (Specht, 1990).
The philosophical underpinning of psychotherapeutic intervention in the field of social work, however, may itself be a significant part of the equation. Epstien (1997), in commenting on recent tinkering with family preservation services, notes:
Family preservation services, intrusive and possibly irritating, may actually exacerbate bad situations, producing harmful effects. Although the deterioration of subjects as a result of care may appear to be theoretically remote, it remains a live possibility of psychotherapy, and therefore cannot be summarily dismissed in any service involving counseling.
The psychotherapeutic orientation of social work aside, Epstien observes that the “intrusiveness” of one family preservation effort under review “may have exacerbated family tensions in a number of cases.” Matters can only be worse in the event that a child is actually removed from the home. As Besharov (1987) explains:
Long-term foster care can leave lasting psychological scars. For the parents, removing a child is psychologically devastating, and can do irreparable damage to their bond of affection and commitment. In addition, many forms of maltreatment stem from how the parent and child relate to each other. Separation obviously cannot aid in the resolution of such problems. The period of separation may so completely tear the already weak family fabric that the parents have no chance of coping with the children when they are returned.
The true extent of the problem is potentially far more significant than one might care to imagine. Roughly 45% of child abuse related fatalities have already come to the attention of child protective services agencies (Wiese & Daro, 1994) with some estimates ranging as high as 55% (Besharov, 1987). While the precise number of such cases actually accepted into the system and passed on for investigation is unknown, conventional wisdom would dictate that had the screening operator or investigating caseworker conducted a more competent or thorough inquiry, or had a reliable risk assessment device — one more capable of better “predicting” the course of events — been made available, nearly half of all child fatalities could have been prevented and these children could have been “rescued” from their tragic fates.
For example, Barth (1994) claims that unwarranted intrusions are not as deleterious to families as is often assumed while others, such as Finkelhor (1990, 1993) and Gelles (1996), argue in support of casting a more expansive net, positing that the problem of unsubstantiated reports is not serious enough to warrant any changes to or restrictions on current reporting trends. Gelles maintains not only that child abuse and neglect are underreported, but that the solution to the problems attributed to overreporting “is a better and more accurate means of risk assessment for reported cases” (p. 47). Reduced to its essence, they, along with many other advocates, argue for what Pelton (1997) describes as “more of the same” so that more children may be “rescued” from their homes.
But will casting a wider net, i.e., significant increases in financial resources expended on child welfare agencies, coupled with a marked increase in the number of available caseworkers truly have an impact on child fatalities? Apparently not, if recent developments in Sacramento, California, are to be taken as an indication. After several high-profile deaths of young children who had reportedly “fallen through the cracks of the county’s notoriously porous Child Protective Services,” Sacramento beefed up its child protective services programs and budgets. The county hired 116 additional social workers, and began removing children from “dangerous homes” more quickly, particularly those homes where drug abuse was present (Sacramento Bee, 1998). As previously noted, the removals of children from their homes increased from a rate of approximately 200 per month to 400 per month, with police assisting child protection workers in conducting unannounced late-night home visits. The results are in, as the Sacramento Bee explains:
Sadly, increased vigilance did not have an appreciable impact. The number of children who died of abuse and neglect last year in the county was among the highest ever, 14 such child deaths in 1998, compared to nine in 1996. At the same time, the number of children in foster homes has soared, up 1,400 from last year, a 45% increase.
While the increase in fatalities may well be attributable in part to some yet-to-be-described outside factors, one may well have imagined that even such a “notoriously porous” safety net would have fared better in protecting children from harm with the addition of 116 caseworkers to its ranks. The best argument that could be raised is that increases in budgets and staffing for child protection agencies are largely ineffective at reducing child abuse- and neglect-related fatalities. An alternative explanation is that such increases in staffing and budgets are somehow responsible for an increase in child fatalities.
Further compounding the difficulties of research in this arena is the fact that there has been little research on the possibility that child welfare services reduce child mortality (Barth & Blackwell, 1998). Pelton (1990) and Lindsey (1991, 1994) argue that there is no empirical evidence to support frequent claims by professionals that child protection services have impacted positively in terms of reducing child fatalities. Indeed, Lindsey (1994, pp. 100-118) devotes considerable attention to an argument which asserts that the tremendous increases in reporting and investigations of the recent decades have failed to produce anticipated reductions in child abuse- and neglect-related fatalities.
While it is not suggested that broad conclusions should necessarily be drawn from the anecdotal accounts recounted herein, further inquiry is essential if we are to devise a meaningful solution to the problem of child abuse while minimizing the possibility of exacerbating it in the very process of investigating whether or not it has occurred. Research in this area of inquiry is scant, at best, and I would find myself gratified if credible research efforts were to be undertaken as a result of my having outlined my hypothesis in these pages.