Legislation in Albany would do away with anonymous reporting of...

Legislation in Albany would do away with anonymous reporting of child abuse. Credit: Getty Images/boonchai wedmakawand

This guest essay reflects the views of Dale Margolin Cecka, assistant professor of law and director of the Family Violence Litigation Clinic at Albany Law School.

New York State recently had an opportunity to save countless families from unnecessary entanglement with the government’s child welfare system. The State Senate vote to pass the Confidential Reporting Act — which would replace anonymous reporting to Child Protective Services with a system of strict confidentiality — was overwhelming, but the Assembly failed to act on it. In 2023, California and Texas passed landmark legislation banning anonymous reporting — and many states are poised to do the same.

Our child welfare system operates on the basis of fear. Judges, state agencies, legislators, teachers, doctors, social workers and caseworkers fear being blamed for a child fatality. On the other hand, parents fear that anyone — from a vindictive ex to a neighbor with a grudge — can make an anonymous complaint to CPS with impunity. Especially in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, this fear is real, visceral and not unfounded: A 2020 report found that Black families in New York are seven times more likely than white families to be reported for child abuse, 13 times more likely to have their children removed — and more often the victims of accusations that are “false positives.”

Our solution has been a system that investigates families prospectively, removes children on the spot, and only later subjects this intervention to a judicial process. But this national effort has not worked.

Countless families have been traumatized at every point in the system: the knock on the door, the body search of a child for possible harm or abuse, the school interview without parental consent. And the identities of everyone reported to CPS are kept in state registries across the country even if a report is unfounded, which can bar employment from a broad spectrum of jobs.

At the root of this is the call to CPS. The public is urged to report suspected abuse. The system has perpetuated the myth that if someone doesn’t say something, a child might suffer or die

But the vast majority of anonymous reports become a tool for a domestic abuser seeking to control their victim, a parent in the middle of a custody battle, or a vindictive neighbor.

Federal government data shows that more than 2.4 million children are unnecessarily investigated each year. And despite popular misconceptions, close to 80% of open cases involve allegations of neglect — poor supervision, truancy, “dirty house” cases, and parental substance abuse — not physical or sexual abuse. In New York, only 3.5% of the 10,000 anonymous reports of child abuse and neglect every year are determined to be credible and actionable.

The legislation would not do away with reporting altogether. It would do away with anonymous reporting: the caller would be required to provide their name, phone number, and address — which would remain confidential and accessible only to those who work for CPS. This would ostensibly discourage spurious reporting.

Unfortunately, opposition remains from the state and local child welfare agencies in New York and across the nation — agencies which are notoriously opaque. But now we have data from Texas: According to an April report, abolishment of anonymous reporting in Texas led to an 18% reduction in child fatalities. The lesson: If we allow CPS to focus on meritorious cases instead of overwhelming them with anonymous calls that are statistically unlikely to be actionable, they do their jobs better.

Requiring CPS to obtain the caller’s name, address, and information before taking steps that can be potentially traumatizing to a family is an absolute must.

This guest essay reflects the views of Dale Margolin Cecka, assistant professor of law and director of the Family Violence Litigation Clinic at Albany Law School.


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