|| SPECIAL FEATURE
Reforming social services
Q&A With HSLDA Senior Counsel Christopher J. Klicka
We keep reading about "child welfare reform" on HSLDA's website and in the Court Report. Why is it such an important issue?
"Child welfare" is the term federal legislators use to refer to a broad spectrum of government services for children, including social services and child abuse prevention. The child welfare system needs reform because it's grown out of control!
HSLDA believes child abuse is a terrible crime, and true abusers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But government statistics reveal that about 60% of abuse and neglect reports are deemed unfounded upon investigation. That means that every year, tens of thousands of innocent families are forced to participate in unnecessary and traumatic child abuse and neglect investigations.
Why is HSLDA involved in child welfare reform?
Even though homeschoolers are not the sole targets of social services investigations, they are often singled out because many government officials still misunderstand homeschooling.
Government statistics reveal that about
60% of abuse and neglect reports are deemed unfounded upon investigation.
Recently, in one week alone, I was contacted by five homeschooling families from different states who were being harassed by social workers on the basis of trivial charges that had nothing to do with child abuse. The first family was turned in for "homeopathy, home births, and homeschooling," the second for "homeschooling, swimming in a feeding trough [even though the family lives in a city], and bug bites," the third for a "messy yard," the fourth for "switching doctors," and the fifth for "homeschooling in the summertime."
Where do these allegations lead?
Child welfare agencies routinely subject innocent families to traumatic investigations simply because an anonymous tipster calls the local child abuse hotline and relays a suspicion or even fabricates a story. Parents are told they must allow the social worker to enter their home and separately interrogate each child-before they will be informed of the allegations.
In most states, the law requires social workers to conduct a home inspection and child interrogation in every investigation. Unfortunately, since these state statutes do not always delineate the constitutional limitations established by the 4th Amendment, social workers are often able to intimidate families into cooperation. For example, an agent might say, "I have received allegations of child abuse and educational neglect. I need to come into your house right away and talk to your children. I am sure we can clear this all up today." In HSLDA's experience, a social worker rarely informs parents of their rights. The social worker will usually not even inform the parents of the specific allegations against them. If parents refuse entry, the agent will often threaten to obtain a court order.
Our child protective services system has turned United States jurisprudence on its head. A 30-year-veteran of social services told me, "When I started working, we tried to prove a family was innocent. Now we assume they are guilty until they prove they are not."
What's the solution?
In October 2001, I had the privilege of testifying before Congress in the Subcommittee on Select Education of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.1 HSLDA sent out an e-lert describing the important issues being considered in this hearing. Many homeschooling families told me they prayed that this testimony would be effective and that Congress would take the needed steps to protect families. The subcommittee recognized that an unrestrained child welfare system was abusing innocent families, and Congress subsequently adopted two of HSLDA's suggested amendments.
On June 25, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the amendments into law as part of the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 (S. 342).
How do these amendments protect families?
First, these amendments require all social workers to be trained in their duty to protect the "constitutional and statutory rights" of the families they are investigating. Until now, most social workers did not have this training-and it showed!
Secondly, the amendments force all social workers to tell the family the allegations "at the initial time of contact." It has been a common practice for social workers to refuse to reveal the allegations until after they enter the home and interview the parents and children.
What impact are these federal amendments making?
Unfortunately, some social workers are still doing things the old way, refusing to comply with the new amendments. Technically, if federal child welfare funding for a particular state is to continue, the new federal amendments must be implemented by that state. However, the federal government does not check up on the states. And social workers are not applying the new amendments correctly.
For example, Maryland's new social worker policy claims to be in compliance with new federal law, but merely requires social workers to tell the "nature" of the allegations-not the specific allegations-"during the interview" rather than at the initial time of contact. This implementation of the law should be labeled noncompliance and is effectively useless.
Colorado's social worker bureaucracy informed the state legislature that it simply would not comply. The chairman of the Colorado Senate Welfare Committee promptly reported his own state to the federal Health and Human Services Department to try to cut off the agency's federal funding.
In Florida, a sheriff told one of our attorneys that he did not have to follow federal law, which required him to inform the family of the allegations against them. He said, "I'm a Florida guy-we don't have to tell the family the allegations."
What's the next step, then?
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department told HSLDA the best way to make sure these child welfare reform amendments are properly and effectively implemented is by adding them to the state codes.
So, over the last two years, we have worked closely with the state homeschool organizations to pass amendments quietly and unanimously-in 16 states now. Those states are California, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.
Is HSLDA seeing a difference in the states where these laws have been passed?
Praise God-the new state laws are working! Just a few weeks ago, I was able to use the new Texas amendment to make a social worker reveal the allegations in an investigation of an innocent homeschool family.
In Michigan, the state amendments enabled me to convince another social worker to respect a family's 4th Amendment rights. And the rest of HSLDA's attorneys have been using the amendments to protect homeschooling families in their own states. HSLDA has also written up a social worker manual to enable state legislators to make certain the social services agencies are properly training their agents.
The bottom line is that the Constitution applies to social workers, too. Every other law enforcement agency is trained in and follows these constitutional mandates. Social services agents need to know they must abide by the same laws.
What can my family do?
Please watch HSLDA's web page and e-lerts to find out when these social worker reform amendments are introduced in your state-if they haven't been already. Keep praying that these laws will be passed in every state and thank God for this needed relief in the states where they have already been passed.
1 Read Chris Klicka's entire testimony before the subcommittee at http://www.hslda.org/docs/GetDoc.asp?DocID=1721&FormatTypeID=PDF.