On July 18, I was honored to testify before the Colorado legislature’s Child Welfare System Interim Study Committee. The committee, made up of 7 representatives and 4 senators, was formed to gather information on the problems in the state’s child protection scheme and on the potential for reforms to improve outcomes. July 18 was the second of five scheduled day-long hearings for the committee.
For my portion of the program, I addressed concerns that we see nationwide directly related to the child welfare system: racial disparity, anonymous reporting, due process for child abuse registries, Child Abuse Pediatricians who “diagnose a verdict,” and the conflation of poverty with neglect.
On the matter of racial disparity, I shared the Colorado page from our 2017 report which showed that while Black children made up only 4.3% of the child population in 2016, they made up 8.9% of the foster care population. Sadly, according to the newest available data (2020), the number in the main population has remained the same (4%), but the number in the foster care population has increased dramatically (11%).
These figures show that Black children are taken into foster care at a rate that far exceeds what we should expect. There could be many reasons for this, but it is virtually inescapable that racial discrimination by government workers plays a part.
So does the conflation of poverty with neglect, since federal studies show that minority families are more likely to live at or below the poverty line.
As I explained to the panel, if a parent is willing to provide for their child but unable to do so, that is poverty. If a parent is able to care for their child but unwilling to do so, that is neglect. In Colorado’s child welfare system, it appears these terms get confused far too often, and families lose their children to foster care simply for the “crime” of being poor.
Where I spent most of my time before the committee, however, was on the dangers of anonymous calls to the child abuse hotline and the benefits of replacing these anonymous calls with confidential ones. I focused on this because we have a simple solution available, and I hoped they would be open to adopting it.
National figures reveal that 83% of all child abuse investigations are ultimately “unfounded” or “unsubstantiated.” But among those stemming from an anonymous hotline call, that number is estimated to climb to 96%. And that means 24 innocent families suffer the trauma of an investigation to locate just one family where some degree (any degree!) of abuse or neglect is found.
By replacing “anonymous” with “confidential” reports, we can prevent many innocent families from coming into contact with the system unnecessarily, which means we spare them of unwarranted trauma. And we can still find that family in need. In fact, we can do so more readily with all the resources freed up from chasing innocent families due to anonymous (and often maliciously false) hotline calls.
I was gratified to hear one lawmaker on the panel express her understanding of the dangers of these anonymous reports. She further expressed interest in supporting our model bill to fix this simple problem within the system.
Then, as time ran out (and I would not be able to respond), one final senator got to speak. I was utterly disappointed to hear her take the tired old line that “if we can find that one family where abuse is going on, then it’s worth it.”
No, senator, it’s not.
It’s not worth it to traumatize 25 families if you can do the same job and only traumatize ten. It’s not worth it to cause irreparable harm to a child’s mental health, to undermine their ability to see their parents as superman and superwoman, so that you can locate one child who, ultimately, is far more likely to be in the system for “neglect” (by which you likely mean “poverty”) than for any form of physical or sexual abuse.
This is not the 1970s. We know from multiple studies the level of trauma children face from having their sense of security destroyed by an unwarranted child welfare investigation. We even presented that information ourselves to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in their Doe v. Woodard case. It is absolutely unconscionable that a state lawmaker would blow off these children as so much “collateral damage” to rescue one child in need.
We can save the child in need without creating twenty-four more problems on the way.
I have to hope, as these hearings continue, that wiser voices will appeal to this senator and convince her of the real harm those sharing her attitude are having on innocent children in Colorado and around the country.
We will continue to testify wherever we are able so that lawmakers can be informed of the truth, including the harm their system is inflicting and the commonsense models our website offers to correct so many of these problems.
Thank you for making it possible for me to testify by standing with us to protect children by empowering their parents!