Home News NY state child abuse hotline shortfalls lead to unnecessary investigations: report

NY state child abuse hotline shortfalls lead to unnecessary investigations: report

New York’s child abuse hotline filters out relatively few calls that fall below the threshold for a report, contributing to thousands of families subjected to unwarranted investigations every year, according to a new analysis.

The actions of the  Statewide Central Register, which turns over allegations to local child welfare agencies to probe, can be the difference between a groundless call and months of intrusive home visits. Once hotline staff hand off a report to the city, the Administration for Children’s Services is required to respond to it.

But advocates at the New York City Family Policy Project are pushing agents who field the calls to ask more questions before putting a family through a traumatic investigation.

“It can’t be that you have very little information about a family,” said Nora McCarthy, director of the think tank, “and make a life-altering report alleging that they’re hurting their kid.”

To accept a hotline call as a report, staff are required by law to determine if a child is in imminent danger because a parent or caregiver is not providing a minimum degree of care, the study found.

“That’s a strong part of the law that if a parent is trying to address a situation, it’s not neglect,” McCarthy said. “It’s not neglect if you’re having trouble getting your child to school because you entered a shelter, you don’t have food but are contesting HRA. It’s not neglect if your kid isn’t attending school because they’re having a lot of trouble if you’re seeking mental health care.”

“The power they do have is to ask more questions,” she continued. “They don’t seem to be really honing in asking the reporter, but is the parent trying?”

The consequences are serious and fall disproportionately on families of color. Nearly 80% of investigations in the city last year were ultimately unfounded. About half of Black children will experience a child welfare investigation before they turn 18.

“There’s definitely the perception that an investigation is jut a check-in on a family,” McCarthy said. “But that’s not what [it] is.”

“It’s intrusive, requires children to pull up their shirts, show they’re not bruised,” she said. “Parents are asked to provide contact information for their doctors, their children’s teachers. They knock on your neighbors’ doors and talk to all sorts of people about you.”

New York is one of just six states that do not share information in a federal database. The NYC Family Policy Project obtained the data through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Each year, hotline staff use their judgment to reject 12% of calls received, the analysis found. Only 1% of reports were closed out by the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, which runs the SCR, because a child was not in “imminent danger” — though many cases are ultimately closed or put on a non-investigatory track by local agencies for that reason.

All in, close to 50,000 calls were deemed “non-reports” last year, including if a caller does not provide enough information, no child or parent is involved in the allegations, or they took place out of state.

The Office of Children and Family Services said SCR staff receive training on intake standards outlined in social services and family court law.


Supreme and Family Court on Jay St. in Brooklyn, New York on Saturday, July 28, 2018. (Jeff Bachner/New York Daily News)

Jeff Bachner/for New York Daily News

Supreme and Family Court in Brooklyn. (Jeff Bachner/New York Daily News)

“OCFS fully acknowledges that disparities continue to exist within the child welfare system,” said Karen Male, a spokeswoman for the state agency, “and remains firmly committed to addressing these systemic inequities and the resulting impact they have on children, families, and communities.”

Male added that the agency has taken action in recent years to reduce unnecessary child welfare probes, including new resources for families and training for child-facing workers, such as teachers and hospital staff, who are legally required to report suspected maltreatment.

Hotline agents are limited both legally and practically in what they can do. They cannot decide whether they believe a caller and only know information shared in calls that typically last under half an hour.

New York appears to filter out far fewer hotline calls than other states and that “should raise concern,” McCarthy said. New York closes out about a quarter of calls, the analysis found, compared to other states that screen out about half of allegations. The city fared better than elsewhere in the state.

Manhattan dad Alex said he was subjected to a spurious investigation after his ex-wife called the hotline alleging he hit their son. The child, 9, was living with his father full-time while his mom addressed her mental health, and within weeks, the family court judge dismissed the case.

But ACS continued to show up at their home. Alex said he was told during the first visit that it seemed like a “noncase,” but the caseworker came back. She asked for contact information at his son’s school, tried to see the younger daughter who was asleep, and threatened to escalate the investigation, he recalled.

“I felt harassed and violated,” Alex said. “You can’t tell with the kids — that’s the problem. You can’t say how much does this affect a kid for a stranger to come ask prying questions and how much does that do to come again. What does it do to home?”

The study calls for changes to the Office of Children and Family Services’ practices and increased oversight. Advocates also suggested local child welfare agencies such as ACS to send reports back to the state for review and refer malicious calls for prosecution.

“They haven’t been making this data public,” McCarthy said. “When nobody knows what you’re doing, nobody’s pressuring you to improve.”


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