New Mexico: Only One Report of Child Abuse in 20 is ‘Substantiated’

This is an excellent article by George Chandler, an attorney in Los Alamos, New Mexico (Albuquerque Journal, 5/8/11).

It’s about the behavior of and laws governing the child welfare agency in that state, the Child Protective Services Division of the Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD).  That means it only applies to incidents occurring in the Land of Enchantment, but it contains good advice and information for people elsewhere.

His main point is that people tend to use reports of child abuse to the CYFD as a means to take revenge or conduct a vendetta against an ex-spouse, a disliked neighbor or relative.  Not surprisingly, a lot of those reports turn out to be unsubstantiated and a fair number are false or malicious.

In a story on the new hotline recently instituted by CYFD, the Journal on April 8 quoted the secretary of CYFD saying that the previous hotline received about 75,000 calls a year, of which only 4,000 were   substantiated.

That’s a little over 5%.  Of course not all of the 71,000 unsubstantiated calls were falsely or maliciously made; surely many of them were by well-meaning people with a genuine concern for the welfare of children.  But just as surely many of them were of the other kind.

That’s because reporting is anonymous.  CYFD is barred by law from divulging the names of reporters of child abuse, the better to encourage people to report suspicious activities or apparent injuries to children.  The idea may be a good one, but its misuse should come as no surprise.

The New Mexico statute says that people who make false reports maliciously or in bad faith can be prosecuted, but apparently no one ever has been.  So reporting abuse is a free shot to anyone who desires to do so.

Reports made in bad faith are supposedly weeded out by a screening process, but, as with so much about child welfare agencies, it’s understaffed and overworked.  So there’s little actual screening done.  It’s easier to pass the case along to an investigator who is him/herself under-trained and overworked.

All of this would be acceptable if no one got hurt by being investigated by CYFD, but many are.  That’s partly because of the notorious heavy-handedness of the agency.  It’s also because of the nature of having to defend your parenting choices to a governmental investigator who likely has neither the time nor the interest in grasping the nuances of your child’s needs.

In Chandler’s experience, parents of children with disabilities, particularly autism, have the most difficulty convincing investigators that how they parent their children is appropriate.

These situations often create suspicions in a person who sees a parent, for example, dealing with an autistic child in a manner recommended by autism specialists that looks to the casual observer very much like abuse. Many of these parents are totally absorbed in their children”s care and treatment and have no time in their lives for many of the activities most of us take for granted. A report to CYFD can mean they will be spending weeks and months dealing with overzealous investigators checking absurd allegations made out of total ignorance by a well-meaning neighbor, schoolteacher or caregiver. This is a disruption to that family that can trigger family chaos, and can send their always precarious finances into a tailspin with attorneys fees and additional doctor”s fees.

The real tragedy is that the experience can be as traumatic to children as actual abuse would be, when a CYFD worker shows up at the door with a cop in tow, demanding   to remove the child”s clothes to inspect for signs of physical abuse.

As with so many governmental agencies, CYFD tends to want to do its job at the expense of people’s rights.  So Chandler sketches in the rights of New Mexicans when contacted by CYFD.

[A]lthough they are required by law to inform persons of the allegations against them at initial contact, they have never done this for any of my clients. Asked for the allegations by a knowledgeable subject, they will attempt to bargain the allegations for the surrender of another right, for example the right not to submit to an interview with investigators or the right not to allow the investigator into the house. I tell my clients not to discuss anything with CYFD outside my presence, which is their right; one investigator responded to this by threatening to substantiate the report because if my client wanted a lawyer present she must be guilty of the allegations. In Los Alamos, the police department insists on accompanying CYFD to the door, so the investigators like to bluff by threatening subjects with immediate removal of the child, which they cannot do except in exceptional circumstances that are not present in these cases.

What Chandler doesn’t say is that child welfare agencies have a nasty habit of circumventing the rights of the parents they investigate by going to court to obtain an “emergency” ex parte order.  In court, without the parents present to oppose their claims, the agency can convince a judge to issue an order to take the kids and, if the parents resist, they can be jailed for refusing to obey the court’s order.  That’s precisely what happened to Maryanne Godboldo in Detroit.

Chandler has some good advice for reporters – don’t be too quick to report something you don’t know much about.  Take the time to learn some details about who the parents are and why they might be treating a child in a particular way.

He’s got some advice for CYFD too.

For CYFD I have four pleas: Publish guidelines for these reports. Develop better, realistic screening that includes asking about and looking critically into the relationship of the reporter to the alleged perpetrator. Insist that your investigators scrupulously follow the law on the rights of their subjects — I have known a number of people who would have cooperated willingly with an investigator had they been approached in a reasonable manner and according to the very clear rules set forth in the statutes and CYFD regulations, and this would have saved CYFD a lot of time and resources.

Finally, put some of your valuable resources into prosecuting some of those malicious and bad faith reporters that you have been ignoring. The statute plainly gives you that option, and the investment will pay off in efficiency in the long run if the reporter understands you will not tolerate being used to accomplish their vendetta.

The last one is of particular interest to advocates for family court reform.  It’s well known that allegations of child abuse are routine in divorce and child custody cases.  Many of those allegations are false and made only to gain the upper hand in family court.

Since family courts seem unwilling to punish false swearers, it would help if prosecutors would do so.

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