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We’ve all read the stories about children who are brutally abused by those who are supposed to love them. United Family Advocates shares in the outrage and the anguish over such cases.  But outrage and anguish are not enough. Curbing violence against children requires real solutions. Instead, public policy has made the problem worse, and done enormous collateral damage to innocent families.

We have so overloaded our child protective services agencies with false reports, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect” that workers have no time to investigate any case properly. That almost always is the real reason for the horror stories that make headlines.

No system can prevent every child abuse tragedy – just as no police department can prevent every crime. But we can do better. We can have a system that curbs damage to innocent families and gives workers more time to find children in real danger.

The Current System

Every year in America more than 3.3 million children are forced to endure a child abuse investigation. One study estimates that nearly one-third of American children – and a majority of African-American children – will endure such an investigation at some point in their childhoods.

Even when well-meaning workers may try to cushion the blow, such an investigation is rarely a benign act. Children are questioned about the most intimate aspects of their lives; sometimes they are strip-searched by workers looking for bruises.  At a time when we are becoming more sensitive to the impact of trauma on children, it’s urgent to understand that a child abuse investigation can be very traumatic for children and families alike. That's not a reason to stop investigating cases with merit, but it is a cause to limit investigations to cases where real harm to children is suspected for genuinely good reasons.

Unfortunately, under current practices that are prevalent through the United States,the standard for “substantiating” an allegation is minimal. There is rarely a hearing beforehand, no chance for the accused to present a defense. Caseworkers simply check a box on a form. In most states the caseworker need merely suspect that it is slightly more likely than not that abuse or neglect occurred.

Nevertheless, only 18 percent of investigated reports are determined to be substantiated. And the only study we know of on the issue found that workers were two to six times more likely to wrongly substantiate an allegation than to wrongly declare it unfounded.  

Of those cases that are “substantiated” the overwhelming majority are nothing like the horror stories.  Far more common are allegations of “neglect.” Typical state neglect statutes define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing shelter or supervision – in short, a definition of poverty.

Millions of children each year endure the trauma of needless investigation for nothing. And all the time wasted on those investigations is, in effect, at the expense of finding children in real danger.

Foster Care Compounds the Trauma

 If children are needlessly taken from everyone they know and love and placed in foster care, they are inevitably traumatized, even if the removal is very short.

Sometimes, of course, foster care placement is essential. But often, placements occur when poverty is confused with “neglect.” Three separate studies have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be back home right now if their families just had decent housing.  Other cases fall between the extremes; there may be real family problems, but problems that can be solved without resorting to foster care.

Two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases found that even under the current system, where families often get little or no help, children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.

Even when substance abuse is a problem, drug treatment for the parents almost always is a better option than foster care for the children. That was the finding of researchers who studied infants born with cocaine in their systems. Once again, the children left in their own homes fared better than those placed in foster care.

All of these problems occur even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes – and the record of group homes and institutions is worse.