WASHINGTON — The latest federal data indicate child-protection agencies nationwide continue to target Christian families, according to Christian legal experts and advocates for reforming aggressive child-welfare agencies.
The Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4), released earlier this year, indicated a dramatic nationwide drop in the incidence of suspected child abuse and neglect. The report, mandated by Congress and issued once a decade by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the Department of Health and Human Services, is considered the gold standard in estimating abuse and neglect rates nationwide and providing a point of comparison from previous years.
The study, which is based on reports between 2005 and 2006 from more than 10,000 “sentinels” who are connected in various ways to child protection, found that the estimated rate of all forms of maltreatment is down 26% since the last study in the mid-1990s. Drops included a 47% decrease in the rate of sexual abuse and a 29% decrease in physical abuse.
The recent national study was released with no public notice or press release, which contrasted with the Clinton administration’s highly touted release in 1996 of the previous NIS that had found large increases in child abuse and neglect.
The report confirmed the anecdotal concerns of some critics of child-protection agencies because it singled out as “endangered” children not enrolled in school — including home-schooled children, children from large families and children whose mother is abused.
For instance, the report found that sentinels were most likely to file abuse or neglect allegations against families with four or more children.
“The real epidemic is in false reports,” said Stephen Krason, professor of political science and legal studies at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. “Some people will think large families must have neglect because parents couldn’t possibly look after all of these kids.”
Krason, who has overviewed the existing research on child-protection overreach, said the data reflect a focus by the agencies and other “mandated reporters” on families that they disfavor for personal reasons, including anti-Christian bias. Such mandated reporters are uniquely exempt from civil liability claims and are not required to provide actual evidence of abuse or neglect to submit families to lengthy and invasive investigations.
“These people are notorious for inserting many things under the label of ‘abuse’ that no commonsense person would think of as abuse,” Krason said.
Another trend among sentinels is higher rates of reported sexual assault by allegations involving children who are not enrolled in schools. Included among these children are the roughly 2 million home-schooled students, who have faced frequent aggressive investigations by suspicious agencies around the country. Importantly, the report found sentinels were much more likely to suspect abuse and neglect in these children overall, but they also were much less likely to find any actual evidence of abuse among these children than among kids enrolled in schools.
“All of this is really dependent on what your definitions of abuse and neglect are,” said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, about the notoriously ill-defined terms that can become simply an extension of the biases of the officials involved.
Examples of such bias-based investigations include a recent case in which Farris defended a family from allegations that their children were in danger of abuse because the social workers involved “believe being serious about your religion is a risk factor for abuse.”
In another case, a neighbor anonymously reported that a child screamed “no” in the middle of the night. The child-protection agency then wanted to conduct a weeks-long investigation of the family. An appeals case ultimately decided that such anonymous calls alone were an insufficient basis to launch invasive investigations of families.
“These people act on the flimsiest of evidence and often on no evidence at all,” Farris said.
One area where the latest federal study found increases in allegations of abuse or neglect was in the rate of suspected “emotional neglect,” which rose by 83%. The recent study does not define emotional neglect, although the previous study wrote that it included “inadequate nurturing”; permitting a child to abuse drugs or alcohol; permitting “maladaptive behavior” (such as chronic truancy), and refusing or delaying needed psychological care. The uniquely vague nature of the emotional-neglect category makes it especially vulnerable to abuse by child-protection officials, according to reform advocates. They noted a large body of anecdotal evidence that indicates many of the study’s sentinel reporters — including law enforcement officers and teachers — are encouraged by child-welfare agencies to make mental health-related emotional-neglect reports without any mental health training.
“In the study, the observers are asked to report when they see a child exhibiting certain symptoms, and they are not asked whether those symptoms are necessarily the result of any behavior of the parent,” said Douglas Besharov, former director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, which was established by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Besharov said spikes in emotional neglect also could stem from slightly modified definitions of what qualifies as emotional neglect instead of non-neglectful behavior or situations.
The definition for emotional neglect also includes situations where children witness domestic violence but are personally unharmed. An increasing child-welfare focus on domestic violence may be behind the growth in emotional-neglect allegations, according to some reform advocates.
“Emotional maltreatment is inherently hard to define, so it is inherently easier to broaden the definition to cover anything and everything,” Richard Wexler, executive director of National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “And one area where this is particularly dangerous is in the area of witnessing domestic violence, which appears to be the big growth area.”
Officials at the Administration for Children and Families did not respond to repeated requests for an interview on the report, but the office released a written statement from Carmen Nazario, assistant secretary for Children and Families at HHS, who specifically cited an increased focus on the federal level on “supporting children” who witness domestic violence.
The domestic-violence focus by child-welfare agencies was highlighted in a 2003 New York state class-action case, Nicholson v. Williams, in which an appeals court barred such agencies from using an attack by a husband or boyfriend on a mother as grounds for finding emotional neglect and justifying the permanent removal of her children.
Wexler has found a growing focus on child exposure to domestic violence among welfare agencies nationwide, which he tracks, and they justify seizing the child from the victim parent as a way to protect the child’s mental health.
As he said, “While it is always emotionally harmful to take away a child, the harm is actually worse if you take that child from the non-offending parent in these situations.”
Rich Daly writes from Washington.