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March / April 2004

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Hope for eliminating anonymous tips

"I have seen firsthand the trauma innocent families have experienced at the hands of social workers pursuing anonymous tips," Home School Legal Defense Association Senior Counsel Christopher J. Klicka told a congressional subcommittee on January 28, 2004.

"Since 1985, I have counseled and legally represented nearly a thousand homeschool families who were harassed by social workers investigating child abuse tips they received from their child abuse hotlines. Ninety-five percent of the tips were anonymous."

Klicka was testifying before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means. Chaired by Representative Wally Herger (R-CA), the subcomittee hearing focused on ways to reform the child welfare system in light of recently publicized social worker failures to detect and protect abused children.

While most of the reforms proposed by the other panel experts involved spending more money, Klicka offered Congress a way to protect children more effectively, while saving money and lightening child welfare workers' overwhelming case loads. He proposed that Congress, through its child welfare program funds, require states to prohibit the investigation of anonymous tips and penalize intentionally false tipsters.

In summary, the proposal would:

>>Require all states to have a statutory mechanism for victims of intentionally false allegations to pursue the tipsters with criminal charges.
>>Require all tipsters to reveal their identity and address to the social worker, who will keep this information confidential but warn them of consequences of giving intentionally false information. This will prevent the majority of bogus allegations that anonymous tipsters give who use the system to get back at people.

Under these requirements, Klicka pointed out, "social workers will have far fewer cases to investigate and the referrals will be far more accurate. This way they can give the requisite time and attention to real child abuse cases instead of being spread so thin pursuing anonymous tips that usually turn out to be unfounded. Eliminating investigation of anonymous tips will largely stop tipsters from using the system to harass people they do not like or are prejudiced against."

Klicka described several instances where innocent families were traumatized as a result of malicious, false anonymous tips. In one case, he quoted from a Wisconsin social worker's official report of the ridiculous "allegations" an anonymous tipster made against a local homeschooling family:

The caller was concerned because the children were all thin and thought that removal of food was possibly a form of discipline. The caller thought this discipline may have been a practice of the parents' religion which was thought to have been Born Again [sic]. The caller thought that these parents give a lot of money to the church and spend little money on groceries. The caller's last, somewhat passing concern, was that [the mother] homeschools her children.

Although it is obvious from the report that the caller's concerns were primarily based on frivolous prejudices against the family's educational choice and religious persuasion, the social worker pursued the tip, demanding to enter the home and interrogate the children. The family was put through unnecessary trauma before the case was declared unfounded.

After the hearing, the subcommittee staff asked Klicka for more data on anonymous tips and expressed interest in his solution.