By Michael P. Farris
One scholar has described the national mood concerning child abuse as a “moral panic.” A poll taken by a major newspaper found that nearly half of the respondents indicated they were willing to throw people accused of child abuse off of buildings, string them up, or dispatch them in a sundry fashion (Minneapolis Star and Tribune, May 19, 1985).
If the results of this poll were carried out, nearly a million and a half innocent people would be thrown off buildings each year. Even by the standards of child abuse authorities, 1.4 million of the 2 million reported cases of child abuse and neglect are false reports.
The public is continually bombarded with the statistic that there are over two millions cases of child abuse each year. We constantly hear that there is a child abuse epidemic. We do not hear the more accurate statistical information which would perhaps create a more thoughtful response to the problem than the desire to throw people off buildings.
We hear little about the vast majority of parents who do no harm to their children. It should be remembered that between 95 and 99 percent of women are never sexually abused by their fathers or stepfathers during childhood. More than 99 percent of children are not beaten up by their parents each year. More than 97 percent of all children are not abused or neglected in any way during the course of a year.1 These children have rights as well, and their right to be raised by their parents free from fear of false accusations must be given greater consideration.
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers. In the last year for which full numbers are available (1986) there were 2,086,112 cases of reported child abuse.2 After investigation social service agencies determined that only 737,000 of these cases of reported abuse or neglect were valid while 1,349,000 were invalid or false accusations. The American Humane Association (AHA) (a liberal children’s rights organization) estimates that between 40 and 42 percent of all reported cases are valid or “indicated.” This means that in 58 to 60 percent of the cases in which families are investigated, the allegations turn out to be false. These numbers are consistent over time. More than 65 percent of all reports of suspected child maltreatment in 1978 turned out to be unfounded. Another study reported that in over half of the cases investigated parents never mistreated their children.
While 737,000 represents a great number of abused and neglected children, even this figure bears further analysis to avoid overstating the problem. The AHA offers the following breakdown by type of abuse or neglect:
Major Physical Injury
Minor Physical Injury
Other Physical Injury
Deprivation of Necessities
It should be kept in mind that these are not the number of cases in which there has been a judicial determination that abuse or neglect has occurred. In only 24.7 percent of the cases opened for services was court action even initiated.4 This would mean that there were approximately 182,000 cases of child abuse or neglect which were not serious enough to initiate court action. AHA does not supply information on what percentage of these cases resulted in a judicial determination of abuse or neglect. Logically the number would have to be smaller than 182,000.
As many families who have been the subject of court action will readily testify, a large number of the cases in which court action is initiated are also based on false, flimsy accusations. This issue of the Home School Court Report chronicles the favorable disposition of one such claim.
Even if there are only 1,000 children who are truly abused in this country, that is 1,000 too many. The true number of those suffering real abuse would appear to be less than 182,000—probably around 100,000 a year. These children need to be protected.
But we must also begin to fix the system which is subjecting hundreds of thousands of children and their parents to the terror and humiliation of false or flimsy child abuse allegations. When social workers spend too much time chasing phony allegations, they lack sufficient time to follow up on the true abuse cases.
We believe that the decision by the Court of Appeals in Alabama is not only a significant victory for family rights, it is a major victory for children as well. If social workers will simply follow the common sense rules police have used for years, hundreds of thousands of children will not be traumatized or victimized by anonymous, unreliable reports whispered into a telephone. Children have the right to live peaceably with their parents free from the fear of an anonymous tipster.
1. Richard Wexler, Wounded Innocents, The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse, Prometheum Books, Buffalo, New York (1990), p. 77.
2. American Humane Association, Highlights of Official Child Neglect and Abuse Reporting 1986, p. 10.
3. Id. at 23. Because of the use of different data sources, the numbers in the AHA study vary from chart to chart. This particular chart totals 784,000 cases of maltreatment while at page 10, AHA uses the number of 737,000 of confirmed cases.
4. AHA, op. cit. at 42.