Prepared Testimony of Richard Wexler
Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources
Subcommittee on Children and Families
Hearing on Child Protection: Balancing Diverging Interests
May 25, 1995
Richard Wexler, Assistant Professor of Communications, Penn State University
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to testify before you this afternoon.
My name is Richard Wexler. I am Assistant Professor of Communications at the Pennsylvania State University -- Beaver Campus. before joining the Penn State faculty, I was a journalist for 16 years, and I spent much of that time covering child welfare issues, work which led me to write the book, Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse. (Prometheus Books: 1990, (1995).
I am also Vice President of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, an all-volunteer organization working to change the child welfare system. More than a hundred years ago, citizens who hated and feared the immigrant poor branded them genetically inferior and took away their children, placing them in middle class and wealthy homes or institutions. These people proudly called themselves CHILD SAVERS.
The term child saving has gone out of fashion, but the practice has not. today's child savers know it is no longer fashionable to label the poor genetically inferior -- at least I hope that is still unfashionable -- so they are labeled psychologically inferior instead. But the result is the same: their children are taken from their loving arms into the homes of middle class strangers. It's the child savers who often can be heard from after testimony like that you just heard from Jim Wade.
They are the ones who shed crocodile tears over a family's plight while defending the system that caused it. They are the ones who insist that, while it's too bad about poor Alicia, the case was just an aberration.
Mr. Chairman, if nothing else comes out of this hearing, please understand this: The Wade Case is not an aberration. The Wade Case is what happens when well-meaning people turn the war against child abuse into a war against children. We have created a system that destroys children in order to save them. as Kermit Wiltse, Professor Emeritus of Social Work at the University of California at Berkeley has put it: "We have a monster on our hands." Two out of three reports alleging child abuse are false reports.
America's children are victimized by false allegations of child abuse more than two million times every year. The child savers are, to use one of their own favorite phrases -- in denial -- about this. They'll say, in effect, those parents were probably guilty, but we just couldn't prove it. That is not true. Of course there are times when guilty parents will wrongly be labeled innocent. But, thanks to research commissioned by NCCAN, we know that workers are two to six times more likely to wrongly label innocent parents guilty. Indeed, according to the statistics gathered by the child savers, Jim Wade is a "substantiated," a "confirmed" child abuser.
And it's really not hard to see why this happens. When child savers claim that cases are wrongly labeled unfounded because abuse couldn't be proven, they know full well that no proof is required. In most cases, "substantiation" means only that an untrained, inexperienced caseworker checked a box on a form. It does not mean a court made a determination, it does not mean that the accused even got to make his or her case. And it does not mean that the accusation was proved beyond a reasonable doubt or even, in most states, by a preponderance of the evidence, the lowest standard any court will accept. It means only that the worker thought there was "some credible evidence" of guilt, even if there was more evidence of innocence.
Last year, in a case from New York brought by members of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that: "the 'some credible evidence' standard results in many individuals being (labeled child abusers and placed in the state's central register) who do not belong there." It is only cases that cannot even meet this incredibly low standard that are labeled unfounded. So if anything, the estimate that two thirds of all reports are false is an underestimate.
Next, we need to turn to the types of cases that are included in the child savers' definitions of maltreatment. Think of child abuse and what comes to mind? Probably a child brutally beaten, or tortured, or sexually assaulted, or killed. Substantiated cases of these kinds present, at most, eight percent of all reports of maltreatment. That does not make child abuse a minor problem. Even a small percentage is a big number, and child abuse is both overreported and underreported. Furthermore, even one case of abuse is a tragedy we should not be prepared to tolerate. (I only wish the child savers would say the same about even one case of needless foster care placement).
The problem of child abuse is serious and real -- it's the solutions that have been phony. And it's those phony solutions that have caused so much misery. Most of the other 92 percent of all reports are false reports or cases labeled deprivation of necessities. And what does that mean?
It can include cases in which a parent deliberately starves a child to death -- but far more common are cases in which the foodstamps ran out at the end of the month and there wasn't enough to eat. It can include cases like the famous one in Chicago in which the parents jetted off to Acapulco and left their children unsupervised. But far more common is the single mother working two jobs to try to stay off welfare who loses her children because something goes wrong with a makeshift babysitting arrangement.
Listening to child savers, it's easy to get the impression that every child in foster care was taken from parents who are brutally abusive or hopelessly addicted. Many such cases exist. But our foster homes also are filled with cases which stem from what Dana Mack of the Institute for American Values calls: The pernicious confusion of poverty with neglect. Child savers piously insist that they never break up families for "poverty alone." But courts in New York City and Chicago have found that in those cities, child savers routinely break up families because those families lack decent housing. A New Jersey study found that 25 percent of the foster children in Newark were in care not because they had been beaten or raped, but because their parents were homeless. (Incidentally, CAPTA includes a Title directed at this problem, and I recommend that funds be shifted from elsewhere in CAPTA to increase that funding).
Even the Child Welfare League of America found, when studying so called lack of supervision cases in New York City, that the services' needed most were the obvious ones, day care and babysitting, but the services offered most were foster care and the ever popular, counseling. (As an appendix to this testimony, I have included two issue papers from the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform which discuss the issue of child abuse numbers in more detail).
Child savers tell us that this is the price we have to pay to protect children in real danger. It's a matter of children's rights, they say. One prominent Child Saver likes to say that "Not one child ever died of a social work evaluation." And over and over again, they tell us we must "err on the side of the child."
But the problem with this system is not that it hurts parents, though of course it does. The problem with this system is that it hurts children.
When the caseworker comes to the door, demands entry, pulls a small child aside and starts asking traumatic questions; when the worker then strip searches the child looking for bruises, how is that erring on the side of the child?
Such strip searches are common practice. In America today, Timothy Mcveigh has more protection against a search of his home or his person, than does an innocent child. The child savers constantly speak of "children's rights," but for some reason, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure never seems to be one of them.
When the child is taken away needlessly because the home is too messy, or there's not enough food, when she is dragged away from everyone loving and familiar and thrown in with strangers, how is that erring on the side of the child?
And when false reports and trivial cases overwhelm the system, cascading down upon untrained, inexperienced caseworkers forcing them to steal time, money, and attention from the children who really do need to be taken from their parents, how is that erring on the side of the child?
We've all heard the stories of children who died because child protective services didn't intervene when it should have, and we wonder: How could it have happened? It happens because workers are so deluged with false reports, they don't have time to give any case the attention it deserves. The workers know this. When florida caseworkers were polled about barriers to doing their jobs, 67 percent cited having to investigate obviously false reports and poverty cases.
This is a system which errs in both directions -- sometimes it intervenes too little, far more often, though with far less publicity, it intervenes too much. If we can reduce intrusion on innocent families -- and we can -- we also can save far more children in real danger.
How exactly did erring on the side of the child benefit Alicia Wade? Think all the time, and money, and effort that went into what amounted to thirteen months of torture-by-therapy for Alicia? Think of the costs of the therapists and the caseworkers and the prosecutors and the courts -- not to mention lots lots of social work evaluations. These resources are not unlimited. In Alicia's case they were, in effect, stolen from some other child in San Diego County whom we will never know who really did need intervention and who, you can be sure was missed.
Alicia Wade is not alone. While she suffered extreme emotional abuse while taken from her family, for other children, foster care is even worse. In the name of child protection, foster children have been beaten. In the name of children's rights, foster children have been raped. And in the name of erring on the side of the child, foster children have been murdered.
When Sara Everman was about eighteen months old, she was taken away by child savers -- after a social work evaluation, I'm sure -- because they thought she wasn't growing fast enough. They placed her in a so called specialized foster home. Six weeks later, Sara began running a very high fever. But the specialists in this specialized home made a doctor's appointment for two days later. On the way to the doctor, Sara stopped breathing. By the time they got to a hospital, she was dead.
Later, Sara's mother said: "She should have been in the hospital two days earlier when she had a 104.8 degree temperature. When she was home, she went the emergency room if her temperature got over 101. I didn't care if they laughed at me when I got there or not. One time I took her when she was cutting a tooth.
"I kept her alive for a year and seven months," Sara's mother said. "they had her for six weeks and three days and she died."
Many other children are not just neglected, they are brutally abused in foster care. I don't have time to tell you their stories, but I want you to hear at least some of their names:
Clayton Miracle of Atlanta, Jerrell Hardiman of La Porte, Indiana, China Marie Davis of Phoenix, Tajuana Davidson of Phoenix, Corey Greer of Treasure Island Florida, Gladys Campbell of Philadelphia, Joey Huot of Philadelphia, Henry Gallop of Boston, Aaron Johnson of Boston.
You won't find it on the coroner's reports, Mr. Chairman, but I submit that these children died of social work evaluations. They died after someone decided to -- err on the side of the child. Please don't let the child savers write these children off as aberrations.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of foster parents are generous, loving people who do the best they can for the children in their care -- like the overwhelming majority of parents, period. And abuse in foster care is not always abuse by foster parents, it can be children abusing each other. But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than the rate in the general population.
A Baltimore study found abuse in 28 percent of all foster homes. A second Baltimore study found rates of sexual abuse in foster care four times higher than the rate in the general population. Perhaps most significant was a survey of alumni of what was said to be an exemplary, model foster care program in the Pacific Northwest. In this lavishly-funded program caseloads were kept low and both workers and foster parents got special training. This was not ordinary foster care, this was Cadillac Foster Care. But in this program, 24 percent of the girls said they were victims of actual or attempted sexual abuse in the one home in which they had stayed the longest -- they were not even asked about the other homes.
Benjamin Wolf, an attorney who brought a landmark suit against the Illinois foster care system calls that system: "A laboratory experiment to produce the sexual abuse of children."
Child Savers are finally beginning to acknowledge the harm of foster care -- but their alternative is even worse: orphanages.
The media have been filled with tours of what I call luxury orphan resorts, like Boys Town, which has a 500 million dollar endowment. Of course there are model orphanages, there are also model prisons and model mental institutions -- they are called models precisely because they are unusual.
To find out what real orphanages will be like, one need only look at New York City's experiment with orphanages in 1987, that's 1987, not 1887.
Seventeen group homes -- that's supposedly the good kind of orphanage -- were established for infants and toddlers. Some were run by the city, some by private agencies. The city called them "congregate care facilities" but they soon acquired a new name: baby warehouses.
By the time the state ordered the baby warehouses shut down just two years after they opened at least two children had died of infectious diarrhea because of unsanitary diapering practices -- the number may have been higher, the record keeping was as bad as the sanitation. A third died because, like 91 percent of the children in the baby warehouses, he had not been properly immunized. The children were cared for by untrained workers working in shifts, who often did not even know the children's names.
At one baby warehouse, the children were spoken to only when they did something wrong.
No doubt the child savers will say these facilities were aberrations. All seventeen of them. But I can cite case after case of similar horrors from all over America.
And that should come as no surprise. The back to the orphanage movement is based on the notion that the same governments and private agencies that gave us the prison system and the juvenile justice system and dotted the landscape with hideous warehouses for the mentally ill and the mentally retarded now suddenly will produce loving, humane institutions for children who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately black. Forgive me if i'm skeptical.
If foster care is not the answer and neither are orphanages, what is? For many many children, the answer is help to keep them safely in their own homes. We know this can be done.
Michigan and Alabama have cut their foster care rates using proven programs that are more humane than substitute care, less expensive than substitute care, and, most important safer than substitute care. I would be glad to discuss this in greater detail during the question period. I must caution you, however, that these programs have been endangered by the legislation passed by the house combining multiple child welfare programs into a single block grant. The problem is that the money for foster care and the far smaller sum available to keep children out of foster care have been put in the same pot. And in the political war between prevention and institutions, institutions always win. If the house plan passes the Senate, I guarantee you that the prevention money will be swallowed up by the child welfare establishment and used for foster care.
I have no problem with ending the entitlement status for foster care funds, indeed, I think it is a good idea. But not if you're going to let states and localities cannibalize prevention programs to make up the difference. Please, please, build a fire wall around Title JVB money and money under the family preservation and family support act. Leave these funding streams separate from any block grant.
Finally, I appeal to all of you not to allow this to become a partisan issue. The majority already has taken a step toward bipartisanship.
You invited a lifelong liberal Democrat to be your second witness. I am a card carrying member of the ACLU, and it was a former member of the ACLU National Board who founded the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
Child Saving combines the worst aspects of liberalism and conservatism. It will take the best of each philosophy to stop it, and provide real help and real hope to children in need. Thank You.
I would be pleased to respond to any questions.
The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. child savers misstate the nature and extent of child abuse in america in order to gain public support for phony solutions. A first step toward real solutions is understanding what the numbers really mean.
The most commonly-used number concerning child abuse is the number of reports alleging maltreatment taken by child protective "hotlines" in every state.
According to the most recent such survey, there were 2,989,000 reports alleging maltreatment in 1993.
Unfortunately, in news stories, this often comes out as "nearly three million cases of child abuse." that is not true.
For starters, nearly two-thirds of those "reports" -- 66 percent -- are false.2 Data concerning false reports are discussed in detail in the next issue paper. But what about the reports that are labeled "substantiated" or "indicated" by protective workers. The data show that "indicated" cases of "major physical abuse" or sexual abuse represent only about eight percent of all "reports" alleging child maltreatment. Far more common are cases categorized as "deprivation of necessities." Often, these are cases in which a family's poverty is confused with "neglect." (See issue paper 5, Child Abuse and Poverty). Even the group that compiled this data acknowledges that the category "likely is related ... to economic status." Substantiated cases of "deprivation of necessities" constitute more than 20 percent of all reports. (The remaining substantiated reports were categorized as "minor physical injury," "other physical injury" "other maltreatment" and "emotional maltreatment.")3
In summary: out of every 100 child abuse "reports," 66 are false. Another 20 are "deprivation of necessities" and only eight are major physical abuse or sexual abuse.
Data from survey research often are similarly flawed -- or the data are taken out of context by the child savers.
Thus, for example, the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse declares that a Denver study of sexual abuse allegations "found that only eight percent of reports were false."4 In other literature, the figure from that study has been given as six percent. (The difference depends on whether cases in which the researchers could make no determination were included when percentages were computed).
In fact, whether one uses six percent or eight percent, that figure applies only to malicious falsehoods. The researchers found that an additional 17 percent of the reports were made in good faith but also turned out to be false.
And in another 24 percent of the cases the researchers could not determine if the report was true or not.5
Child abuse numbers
Thus, what this study actually found was that at least 23 percent and possibly as many as 47 percent of all sexual abuse allegations are false. furthermore, to be considered true in this, study, a report needed only to meet the standard used by most child protective agencies -- that there be "some credible evidence" of abuse even if there is more evidence that there was no abuse.
Some numbers are repeated so often that people are surprised to find how little data there are supporting them. Studies attempting to estimate the percentage of people sexually abused during childhood have come up with results ranging from one percent to 62 percent.6 In addition, these studies use widely varying definitions of abuse, and usually include abuse by anyone, not just cases subject to the jurisdiction of child protective services. But because large numbers attract more attention than small numbers, the claim appears repeatedly that "one out of three girls and one out of ten boys will be sexually abused" during childhood.
The best evidence we have concerning the true prevalence of sexual abuse comes from a review of 20 different studies conducted by seven canadian researchers. They found that the studies with the best methodology consistently found that between 10 and 12 percent of girls under age 14 are sexually abused by someone (not necessarily a parent or guardian) during their childhoods. The study that produced the "one out of three" claim was singled out for criticism by these researchers.
7 That 10 to 12 percent figure, like all of the best evidence concerning the true extent of child abuse in America, is cause for alarm, concern, and action. The real numbers are bad enough. Exaggeration serves only to panic us into seeking "solutions" that hurt the very children they were intended to help.
False Allegations: what the data really show
As the previous paper in this series noted, a huge proportion of reports of child abuse are, in fact, false reports
But to a child saver, there is virtually no such thing as a false allegation of child abuse. False reports are labeled "unfounded" or "unsubstantiated" but child savers insist that's not the same thing as false. They offer several reasons why, in all likelihood, any parent accused of child abuse must be guilty. such arguments are a classic example of a half-truth. They are, quite literally, half of the truth.
Of course, America's stumbling, bumbling child-saving bureaucracy is going to mislabel some real cases of abuse -- some guilty families will be let off the hook after an investigation. but that same bureaucracy repeatedly mislabels innocent families as guilty.
This question was examined by a major federal study, commonly known as the Second National Incidence Study or NIS2. This study second-guessed child protective workers, re-checking records to see if they had reached the right conclusion. The researchers found that protective workers were at least twice as likely and perhaps as much as six times more likely to wrongly label an innocent family guilty as they were to wrongly label a guilty family innocent.1 Thus, not only are 60 percent of all allegations false, chances are that figure is an underestimate.
Yet child savers insist that false reports are not really false. These are their reasons, and why those arguments don't wash:
The real problem is the reverse: Innocent people whose cases have been wrongly "substantiated." In most states, a worker can label a case "substantiated" if she thinks she has "some credible evidence" of maltreatment, even if there is more evidence of innocence. In a case brought by members of the Coalition, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 1994 that "the 'some credible evidence' standard results in many individuals being placed (in the central register) who do not belong there."2 It is grossly misleading for child savers to label such cases as "confirmed" or "substantiated."
In addition, most states lump together cases in which there has been actual maltreatment with cases where the worker thinks something just might happen in the future. These so-called "at risk" cases may make up half or more of the 40 percent of all allegations that are "substantiated."
And finally, the enormous pressure on workers has to be considered. If they label a case false and harm comes to a child, they face loss of their jobs, the enmity of the press and the public, and perhaps even criminal charges. If they wrongly label parents guilty, even if that leads to needless foster care placement and all the harm that can cause for a child, the worker suffers no penalty--so workers practice "defensive social work" and wrongly accuse innocent parents.
For all of these reasons it is clear that of all reports alleging child abuse every year, the vast majority are false -- "not "unsubstantiated," not "unfounded" just plain false.
1. Study findings: Study of National Incidence and Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect: 1988 (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1988), Chapter 6, page 5.
2. United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Decision, Anna Valmonte v. Mary Jo Bane, Docket No. 93-7183, March 3, 1994, pp. 2242,2244.
3. For example, unlike most states, Kansas does not lump these categories together. therefore, in Kansas, only 11 percent of all reports are substantiated. (Office of the Legislative Post Auditor, Performance Audit Report, 1990, p.6).