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Assessing child-abuse reports a complex challenge

November 27, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) — The calls, reporting suspicions of child abuse and neglect, come in at a rate of nearly 10,000 a day, to hotlines and law-enforcement offices across the country.

They add up to 3.4 million reports per year — a daunting challenge for state child protection agencies, which must sort out the flimsy or trivial claims from the credible and potentially dire ones, and make decisions that balance the rights of parents with the welfare of children. Many states, after initial screening, deem more than half the reports they receive to be unworthy of further investigation.

"In child protection, you are always walking a difficult line," said Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner of Vermont's Department for Children and Families.

"Obviously you want to protect children from harm, but you don't want to intervene in the private life of a family when it's not indicated," she said. "Those decisions need to be made carefully, so you're getting it right as often as possible."

The issue of child-abuse reporting burst into the spotlight last week with news that Arizona's Child Protective Services failed to look into about 6,000 reports of suspected child maltreatment that had been phoned in to its abuse hotline in recent years. At least 125 cases already have been identified in which children were later alleged to have been abused.

Other states have had problems with their processing of abuse reports. Florida's Department of Children and Families, for example, overhauled its abuse hotline last year after flaws were discovered with how information was collected and relayed to investigators.

In general, however, advocacy groups and academic experts credit child-protection agencies and their workers with trying their best, under often-challenging circumstances.

"Child protection workers are very valuable to our country," said Jim Hmurovich, president of the Chicago-based advocacy group Prevent Child Abuse America and former director of Indiana's Division of Family and Children. "They often have to make determinations with limited information, and they care a lot."

Nationally, the standard practice is to vet all the calls coming in to the hotlines. Yet as that is done, federal data show that about 40 percent are soon "screened out" — judged not to warrant further intervention or investigation. Among the reasons: The alleged maltreatment might be deemed innocuous, or the caller may fail to provide enough details for the agency to pursue.

Of the 3.4 million reports received for the 2011 fiscal year, about 2 million — or 60 percent — were "screened in" to trigger some degree of state intervention, according to the latest federal figures. Of those cases, 680,000 ended up being substantiated as incidents of neglect and abuse.

Even at that stage, there are options. The child-protection agency may open a formal child-abuse investigation or, in a less drastic step, it may assign social workers to assess a given family's circumstances and offer counseling, support services or other intervention. Minnesota is at the forefront of a group of states pursuing this strategy, known as "differential response."

"It is hard work," said Erin Sullivan Sutton, Minnesota's assistant commissioner for children and family services. "One of the challenges is being able to distinguish where people are doing horrible things to children and those situations where a mom or dad are trying to be good parents but lack the resources to do so."

Minnesota screens in only about a third of all the reports received through a statewide network of county and tribal hotlines — well under the national rate of 60 percent. But Sullivan Sutton says voluntary social services are offered to some of the families who figure in the cases that aren't going to be subjected to a formal abuse investigation.

"We care as much about the families who are screened out as those who are screened in," she said.

Vermont, like Minnesota, screens in only about 30 percent of the reports phoned in to its statewide hotline. In 2011, there were 15,256 reports and 4,911 of them were accepted for state intervention — either a child abuse investigation or a less draconian assessment.

Walcott said her agency is comfortable with the low screen-in rate.

"We encourage people to call," she said. "Even if they just suspect something, we prefer they call us. It's our job to sort through the information they give us."

Overall, experts say it's difficult to assess how good a job the state agencies are doing with their screening of abuse reports — in part because variances in laws and practices make precise state-to-state comparisons almost impossible. Even the basic definitions of child maltreatment vary.

"We don't have a lot of information about the cases that are screened out, so it's hard to say if a good decision was made," said John Fluke, an expert on child maltreatment at University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Vermont did undertake a detailed assessment of its abuse reporting system in 2012. It concluded that its decisions on screening in were highly accurate but found fault with 22 percent of the decisions to screen out, generally on grounds that those decisions were made without gathering enough information about the case.

According to the federal data, the total number of reports of suspected maltreatment rose from 3.1 million in 2007 to 3.4 million in 2011. The number of confirmed cases of abuse or neglect declined over that period, from 723,000 to 681,000, at a time when many state child-protection agencies were experiencing tight budgets and heavy caseloads.

Virtually every state has laws outlining who is required to report instances of suspected child maltreatment. Most states designate certain professions — notably law enforcement personnel, social workers, teachers and other school personnel, doctors and other health care workers, and child-care providers. However, 18 states have laws requiring any person who suspects child abuse to make a report.

Sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, said some members of the public may make calls that are far too vague for an agency to pursue.

"When professionals call, they understand what's needed to make a credible report," he said.



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