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Unintended Consequences of Child Abuse Reporting
The evolution of the way child abuse is reported and investigated has helped many children and is now putting some at risk. Public policy has unintended consequences both positive and negative. The negative consequence that I am concerned with is the use of the child abuse and neglect reporting system to screen people who work with children. The way it works is that an agency submits a name of a prospective employee or volunteer to the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and they report back any substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect attributed to that person. This is viewed by many as adequate to determine if a person is safe to work with children. It is no longer adequate. Many agencies go further than this limited screening but not all.Explanation of why this no longer works requires a brief review of how we got here. Child abuse and neglect have been part of human history and through the ages communities have responded in a variety of ways. It was only in the 1960s that states developed child abuse and neglect reporting systems when we determined that child abuse was a problem requiring state intervention. This starts with people reporting suspected abuse or neglect and professional staff investigating to determine if it occurred and if the child is safe. If there is evidence that the child was abused, the report is confirmed. If the child is not safe, foster care is the most frequent response. Day care licensing standards were a parallel development in Kansas and nationally. These legislatively determined standards include restrictions on who can work in a child care facility. Someone who committed an act of child abuse and neglect (KSA. 65-516) is specifically excluded from such work. The easiest way to determine if someone has committed such an act is to ask SRS to check their records.If someone is going to be deprived of their livelihood (a job) because a state agency said that they abused or neglected a child, how can we be certain that the person making the decision was correct? That question was addressed in federal lawsuits with some courts determining that the answer was to require a high level of evidence that abuse occurred for making such a finding (for example in the Northern District of Illinois in April 2001). Typically states used something like preponderance of credible evidence as the standard to make this decision. Kansas adopted the much higher standard of clear and convincing evidence in 2004. I could not locate their reasoning but I think that it related to depriving people of jobs based on a low level of evidence that abuse or neglect occurred.The result was a nearly 50% decrease in substantiated reports. In 2004 SRS investigated 15,840 reports of abuse and neglect and substantiated 3,878 (24.5%). In 2005 they investigated 14,146 reports and substantiated 1,954 (13.8%). The SRS website says that this rate is now 8.8%. There are now a lot fewer people with a record of a finding of abuse or neglect in SRS records. So when an agency only uses the SRS child abuse and neglect reporting system to screen volunteers they are less likely to find a history of abuse or neglect. Neither do they find out if the person has a felony conviction for a crime against persons. You need to check with the KBI for those records. If you are involved with an agency serving children in whatever role, ask how they screen volunteers. If they only use the SRS child abuse reporting system, suggest that they do better.