The Hippo


May 24, 2020








Public’s knowledge of child abuse policies

The percentage of people who answered the questions incorrectly. The statements below are all true.
If a child is being abused, law does not require a child to be taken out of home - 71%
Someone who fails to report suspicions could be charged with a misdemeanor - 61%
Every person is required to report suspected maltreatment - 39%
A person cannot be sued if they are wrong about their suspicions - 39%
A person reported for child maltreatment is not allowed to know who reported them - 28%
You can make an anonymous report - 14%
Source: UNH’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Required reporting
Law says you must report suspected child abuse

By Ryan Lessard

 What do you do when you suspect a child living in the apartment next door is being abused or neglected? Maybe you heard yelling, maybe you spied bruises, but you didn’t witness actual abuse. The decision to report suspected abuse may seem like a difficult one, with many unknown ramifications — but what most New Hampshire residents don’t realize is the decision has already been made for them. State law requires everyone to report suspected child abuse, not just child care professionals.

Study findings
A recent study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that a significant minority of adults in the state weren’t aware they were legally required to report even just suspected child abuse. The study seems to suggest that this disconnect has its roots in a generational culture shift and a lack of faith in the system meant to protect children. 
This comes as state child protection services are under heightened scrutiny over their ability to protect children in the wake of several infant and toddler homicides. 
Experts say prevailing public misconceptions about how the system works are the greatest barrier to neighbors and family members doing their part.
“Many people are confused about what the law entails and have a lot of misperceptions about what actually does that mean, to report child abuse,” said Wendy Walsh, the chief researcher of the UNH study. 
For Walsh, the most surprising finding in this study was that 39 percent of respondents didn’t know they were legally required to report suspected abuse. And a majority, 61 percent, didn’t realize they could be criminally liable and charged with a misdemeanor if they failed to report suspicions of maltreatment. 
Participants were asked to answer six questions to test their understanding of the law, the reporting process and a reporter’s anonymity, but only 5 percent answered all six questions right. 
This is troubling for child protection workers who rely heavily on the public being their eyes and ears. Still, it’s not that surprising to professionals.
Lorraine Bartlett, the director of the Division of Children, Youth and Families, noted that although New Hampshire is one of 19 states with a universally mandated reporting law and has had that law on the books since 1979, only about 30 percent of the reports Child Protective Services receives are from nonprofessional members of the public. 
And when Bartlett reviewed the findings of the UNH study, she noted a clear age difference in how likely the participants were to report abuse and how correctly they answered questions about the process.
The older the participants were, the less likely they were to answer the questions correctly. Bartlett thinks that may be partly due to a different mindset among older generations that generally favor less state intervention in family affairs.
“I wondered if generational values and differences in beliefs about how a public child welfare agency should or should not intervene with a family impacts people’s not only knowledge but willingness to report,” Bartlett said.
Meanwhile, younger participants were more likely to call CPS while older participants were more likely to call the police.
While the reticence to intervene was among the top three factors identified in the study, with 29 percent saying it is “somewhat important” and 12 percent saying it is “very important,” other factors like the time it takes to make the report and a belief that nothing would be done to help the situation were given greater importance by respondents. 
About 52 percent said their assumption that nothing would be done to help the situation was a “very important” factor. This might have links to the greatest misconception identified in the entire study.
“Many adults think that after they call and report something that child protective services are going to swoop in and automatically take the child out of the house,” Walsh said.
But state law does not require this, even if abuse is happening. Of those who answered this question, 71 percent got it wrong. 
And for those who fear making a report could make a bad situation worse, this misconception could be the difference between someone picking up the phone or not.
“You can imagine if someone has this perception … it might give them reason to pause,” Walsh said. “That’s just such a huge barrier to deciding to make the call.” 
This is the first study of its kind for the state and only the second in the nation, according to Walsh. She concludes there’s a need for improving awareness of the legal requirements and dispelling the myths that keep people from reporting possible abuse.
“To me, that shows that we really need to be doing a better job educating the public about what happens after a report is made,” Walsh said.
Social worker myths
Think back to that hypothetical scenario. You have clues, but no proof. But should your suspicion be trusted? Then you think about the stakes; this is someone else’s family, someone’s childhood. What if making the call will place the kid in an understaffed and overworked foster care system with its own risks and disadvantages? 
Bartlett said these are normal questions to be asking.
“You’re thinking, how much information do I need to know or give? What are the potential ramifications for me when I make a report? What are the potential ramifications for the child or the family?” Bartlett said. “I think often times people ask themselves, ‘Boy, am I just gonna make it worse?’”
But, Bartlett said, these fears, by and large, are unfounded. Removing a child from a home happens rarely, for the most serious cases, and only after every attempt to keep the child with their family is made.
“The Division of Children, Youth and Families’ goal is to maintain children in their own home whenever possible,” Bartlett said.
And the next step, if removal is necessary, is to find an extended family member to care for the child. Even then, for many cases, reuniting a child with their parents can still happen down the road when the conditions that led to the abuse or neglect are resolved.
So, she said, everyone should err on the side of caution and report what they suspect. It may amount to nothing at all, or it may protect the child from a dangerous situation. Some families who are reported may actually get access to resources to help them get food, clean up a living environment or find addiction treatment or parenting training. Each situation is different, but most neglect cases are a symptom of poverty or mental illness and those folks often need help.
Walsh said that as long as success stories from reporting suspected abuse or neglect remain untold, the exaggerated image of CPS workers as state enforcers dispatched to break up families stays unchallenged. 
Bartlett recalled a recent success story of a woman addicted to opioids who gave birth to a baby with withdrawal symptoms; it’s known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. The workers at the hospital where she gave birth reported it to CPS in January. 
And instead of immediately prying the baby from its mother’s arms, the CPS worker met with the mother, coached her on safe sleeping, helped her make arrangements to stay with her parents while undergoing outpatient treatment and after the mother demonstrated her ability to care for her newborn, it was released from the hospital. 
The CPS worker followed up with two visits, both two weeks apart, and found that she had been continuing her treatment and her parents said the young mother and child were doing well. The case was closed in late February and the CPS worker left her card with the mother, saying she should call if she needs anything.
Making a report
Bartlett said there are currently 10 intake personnel who answer the main line when someone calls in a report, each of them veteran CPS workers. And DYCF is in the process of hiring a CPS worker for each field office to extend coverage to 8 p.m. The agency is also looking into eventually offering 24/7 support coverage, which is one of the ideas floated by lawmakers in the recently created Commission to Review Child Abuse Fatalities. 
The intake workers on the phone are well-trained, Bartlett said, and inform reporters of what’s going to happen every step of the way. 
If there’s enough information to trigger an assessment process, a CPS worker will speak with the family being reported and inspect the living situation, or, in extreme cases, involve law enforcement for a full investigation. 
In many cases, the report gets filed away for a year if there isn’t enough information to act on it. If other reports follow, it may trigger an assessment. 

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