Which would be worse: being beaten by your partner, or having social services take away your children? That’s the choice facing many parents I’ve worked with as a social worker, and the answer is always the same. “I’d rather take the beating than catch a CPS case,” as one said to me.
Once a Child Protective Services (CPS) case is initiated, parents are subject to regular, unannounced, intrusive visits from caseworkers, searching their cabinets, refrigerator, and rooms; administering substance tests without cause; and strip-searching their children. Neighbors, teachers, and family members are questioned about the parent. Many domestic violence survivors are told they must leave their homes to keep their kids and find a family member or shelter to take them in. Anything deemed out of order (i.e., an empty fridge, a messy home, a positive substance test, too many school tardies, absences, or missed appointments) can culminate in parents’ losing custody of their children. “It feels like we’re going from one abusive situation to another, and both constantly threaten to take our kids,” as another parent once said to me.
But why is this choice—of “taking the beating” or “catching a CPS case”—something that parents have to think through at all? Because most frontline service professionals (like teachers, health care workers, social workers, and therapists) are required to report any “suspicion” of child abuse or neglect to CPS under a practice called mandated reporting. And in most states, failure to protect a child from domestic violence and spousal abuse is considered child neglect.
Mandated reporters are taught that if they don’t call in such suspicions, they could lose their jobs or licenses, be subject to hefty fines, or even criminal prosecution. And in some states, all adults have this legal obligation.
Many of the original advocates for mandated reporting sought to push physicians to report suspected child abuse after an influential 1962 publication examined medical reports and determined that physical abuse was being unreported by doctors. Physicians didn’t report largely because they feared retaliation through lawsuits by accused parents who had the means to sue. After the report was published, all states adopted mandated reporting policies with immunity clauses by the end of the 1960s, but poor families were disproportionately reported: More-affluent families usually went to private clinics, knew their providers, paid their doctors directly; questionable X-rays for these families were typically classified as accidents. Comparatively, low-income families typically went to public clinics with doctors they’d never seen before and would never see again; these families were reported at much higher rates.
Additionally, the anti-welfare rhetoric of the 1960s and ’70s and public disdain of “welfare babies” placed additional focus on poor, particularly Black, parents and anything perceived as out of order. By 1974, federal law codified mandatory reporting of not just abuse but also neglect.
Knowing exactly what counts as child abuse or neglect isn’t easy. Definitions are exceptionally vague—so much so that social workers and teachers often err on the side of reporting anything that could qualify. In fact, federal law is so broad that last year, Texas governor Greg Abbott was able to issue a directive expanding his state’s CPS range of child abuse investigations to include seeking gender-affirming care for a child.
More commonly, states have interpreted poverty as a form of neglect. All 50 states have included failure to provide basic needs like shelter, food, and clothing in their definitions of neglect. Most states also include failure to provide medical care—even if the parent can’t afford to do so—as well as living in a home where domestic violence is present.
Which brings us back to the brutal choice that survivors of domestic violence face. Seeking help for intimate partner violence will almost surely lead to being reported for having allowed the child to live near that violence in the first place.
As a result, many systems that should support families during hardships—schools, hospitals, and domestic violence services—have become what parents describe as systems of surveillance. A new study even shows that, because they fear CPS, many Black women avoid seeking medical care. Their fears are well-founded. As ProPublica and NBC found in a year-long investigation, these systems aren’t just biased against low-income families; they are biased against Black and Indigenous families as well. As they learned, mandated reports come in so quickly and are so unevenly applied that the parents of more than half of all Black children nationally will be investigated, nearly double the rate of parents of white children.
Seeking help while in an abusive relationship is already challenging. For parents who have previously experienced a child welfare investigation, it’s even harder.
I work with parents who have been affected by the child welfare system. Around 95 percent of the parents in our organization’s programs are also survivors of domestic violence. Most don’t trust the child welfare system, domestic violence agencies, or health care systems, since they’ve endured those mandated reports. The memory of losing one’s children or fearing that loss while being investigated remains visceral and traumatizing—so much so that they shy away from official systems entirely.
Don’t just take my word for it. A number of studies have documented that survivors of intimate partner violence avoid seeking help and minimize what they share with social service providers, who could offer safety planning, legal support, therapy, and help finding what survivors most need: housing and childcare. But survivors are afraid—very reasonably—that any information will be used against them in a mandatory report and an investigation. So mandated reporting doesn’t help most survivors. Over half of survivors in one study said that a mandated report made their situation “much worse,” while only 1.8 percent said it made their situation much better.
Worse, there is no evidence that universal mandated reporting keeps children safer. Multiple studies have found that universal mandated reporting policies did not result in more substantiated findings of physical abuse, and in fact the increased reports created a heavy load for already overburdened caseworkers. There is plenty of evidence that children who are separated from their families and placed in foster care are more likely to end up being diagnosed with mental health issues, prescribed psychotropic medications, and, after foster care, to experience homelessness and incarceration.
Many professionals who had advocated for mandated reporting policies later expressed regret after seeing the ways it focused almost entirely on poor families and interpreted poverty as neglect, and this year, the Human Rights Watch recommended the elimination of mandatory reporting requirements for this same reason.
So what does real support for families look like?
To understand this, it’s important to remember that children and families need to be connected with their communities in meaningful ways. They need to trust their neighbors, friends, schools, and doctors. That way, if a parent needs help, they can ask for it without fearing punishment. If a parent needs respite or childcare, neighbors and community groups can step in. If a parent has a violent or abusive partner, they can reach out to teachers, counselors, or community members to create a safety plan. That makes a social worker’s job much easier, too; if they want to support a family, they can help the family build connections with neighbors and friends.
That may sound like pie in the sky, but some groups are working, today, to strengthen and invest in the social fabric of their communities. For instance, consider the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) model—which some former foster youth are advocating for as a better response to families in need than mandated reporting. This approach builds on the assets and skills that are already found in the community, instead of exclusively focusing on needs, and purposefully develops them.
This concept is being explored in New York State. The Child and Family Wellbeing Fund is supported by a broad coalition of child welfare advocates, including me and the organization I work for—JMACforFamilies, a legislative advocacy organization that provides programming for families that have been impacted by the child welfare system. This fund would provide flexible, discretionary funding for small, grassroots, trusted community-based organizations that have no connection with the state office tasked with child protective services—and no mandate to report.
The proposal targets the 10 zip codes in the state with the highest proportion of families tangled up with CPS. The goal would be to fund small organizations that offer simple, direct aid like diapers, food, and clothing; art classes and after-school activities; picking kids up from school when a parent can’t make it; helping a survivor move their belongings; bringing parents together for community events. Hundreds of tireless local groups already do this kind of work for their own communities, providing practical help for children and families in moments of crisis. But such grassroots groups are chronically underfunded, without the staff or resources to apply for state dollars.
New York isn’t the only place to try a creative approach to support communities. Across the country, local and state governments are envisioning creative ways to fund community safety programs. Wichita, Kan., has an organization using the ABCD model to strengthen neighbors’ relationships and community support; Saint Paul, Minn., is reimagining a public funding stream for emergency response; Oregon has used the ABCD model in a number of projects to address housing, food security, community building, and transit-oriented development.
The Child and Family Wellbeing Fund didn’t make it onto New York State’s budget this year; many lawmakers supported the concept but needed more time to evaluate the proposal. The coalition will continue pushing it next year, fleshing out more of the logistics and building more public and elected support outside of the usual child welfare voices.
The grassroots groups that do community-building work need a funding model that works for them. State and federal block grants are typically reimbursed funds, thus excluding organizations that can’t afford to pay upfront or apply for loans. Therefore, the majority of organizations receiving government funding are typically larger nonprofits with leadership teams and boards of directors that do not represent the families and communities they work with; who don’t know what it means to have their kids taken by the state, and so uphold policies like mandated reporting that make their services feel unsafe for survivors and parents who want to ask for help.
For decades, advocates have been pushing for much-needed changes to government investments for societal issues, placing more resources into the hands of community members who understand how to strengthen their communities, not simply large nonprofits. This can begin by finding the political will to finance upfront funding streams, like the Child and Family Wellbeing Fund, that are built to support these groups.
For children to thrive, families need to thrive. For families to thrive, communities need to thrive. Instead of condemning struggling families to separation, trauma, and distrust with the all-purpose but flawed hammer of mandated reporting, let’s try something new. Let’s invest in families and communities. Let’s support community-based organizations that are deeply rooted and trusted by families. Let’s reimagine the way we fund child well-being.