This Small Change May Save Domestic Violence Survivors From Partners Who Abuse the Child Welfare System

Since reporting is anonymous, abusers often use the child welfare system to punish their victims, but a slight adjustment in a New York law could finally help protect survivors. 

Politics
This Small Change May Save Domestic Violence Survivors From Partners Who Abuse the Child Welfare System

Leaving an abusive relationship is arguably the most challenging thing a domestic violence survivor will ever do. However, for many survivors with children, the abuse doesn’t end when they walk out of the door. 

Over the last decade, domestic violence and parent advocates have increasingly been raising the alarm about “malicious reporting,” a coercive control tactic abusers and others use that involves raising false allegations of abuse or neglect of a child with the intent to control or harm the accused parent. This could be reporting something as relatively minor as not taking a child to school or as extreme as allegations of sexual abuse. 

Currently, anyone can call the New York State Central Register and say a child is being abused or is in danger, and the state has to investigate. Since reports can be made anonymously, it’s difficult to assess the full extent of malicious reporting. But it’s worth noting that in New York, of the 10,000 anonymous reports of child abuse and neglect every year, only 3.5 percent are determined to be credible, according to an AFFCNY report. 

Now, advocates and legislators in the state are proposing a shift in how child welfare cases are reported. The Confidential Reporting Act, which was introduced in 2023 by NY Senator Jabari Brisport (D), would get rid of anonymous reporting and require anyone reporting abuse to provide their name and contact information. Their info would still be kept private to avoid retaliation, but champions of the legislation like JMACforFamilies, along with dozens of other legal and child and parent advocacy groups, believe the shift would allow child welfare agencies to assess the validity of calls before sending out investigators. 

“[Anonymous] reporting allows people to report with malice because they don’t have to be accountable,” Joyce McMillan, Founder and Executive Director of JMAC, told Jezebel.  “[Moving to confidential reporting] is about the system being able to capture repeated callers, especially repeated calls about a family where the case is continuously unfounded.” 

Professor Heather Douglas, who studied the experiences of domestic violence survivors who were victims of malicious reports at the University of Melbourne, says that abusers often shift towards using the system as a way to abuse their partners once they no longer have physical access to them. 

“Kids can be really effective in getting women to capitulate or do what abusive partners want them to do,” she explains. “So whether that is I can report you to child protective services, or I can take these kids through family court, there is a range of threats that can be made about the kids.” 

In New York, Hannah Mercuris, Senior Policy Counsel for the Center for Family Representation (CFR), which represents families during child welfare investigations and during family court prosecutions in New York, has seen the impact of this form of abuse on CFR’s clients. 

“[Investigations, even those that don’t result in family separation] can really upend someone’s life. A lot of people lose employment during the investigations, or their employment is compromised or paused and maybe put on probation from their job. CPS can talk to neighbors or schools, really share [a person’s] business around in a way that is really full of shame and stigma,” says Mercuris, adding, “and can put someone’s housing at risk or make domestic violence survivors less safe.” 

For survivors of color, the stakes can be even higher, says Maureen Curtis, Vice President of Criminal Justice and Court Programs at Safe Horizon, a New York-based non-profit victim services organization: “When these reports are made, the most impact is on Black and brown families that get caught up in the child welfare system, and a lot of harm is done when that happens.”

In New York City, Black families are seven times more likely than white families to be reported for child abuse and thirteen times more likely to have their children removed. The impact of these investigations is not just on the survivors; children are also caught in the crossfire. Louise Feld, Senior Writing and Policy Attorney for The Children’s Law Center, which represents youth in the family court and child welfare system in New York, Feld recounted one child client whose family was repeatedly investigated due to what he believed to be false allegations. “ACS was showing up and doing body checks, waking [him] up in the middle of the night, showing up to [his] school,” she said. “So it was really anxiety provoking and in some cases very traumatizing to the children.” 

As for the legislation, Sen. Brisport is confident the Confidential Reporting Act can pass before the legislative session ends on June 6th. But advocates say this is just the beginning of addressing the issues with the State’s child welfare system. 

“We need to look at the bigger picture,” says Curtis. “Whether it’s child welfare, whether it’s the civil or criminal justice system, we need to have an understanding of what coercive control is and the impact that it can have on not just the survivors, but to the children as well.” 

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