Last week ParentalRights.org sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to reject any boost to Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) funding unless Congress is ready to make serious changes to how the program works.

Given that the entire mission of ParentalRights.org is “protecting children by empowering parents,” nothing could be of greater concern to us than programs inflicting harm on society’s most vulnerable—our children. Yet, as it stands, our government is spending millions of dollars to fund programs that cause more harm to children and families than they prevent. And that is unconscionable.

CAPTA is a “carrot” program used since 1974 to provide federal spending incentives for states who adopt child maltreatment programs according to the specified guidelines.

For instance, today every state has a child abuse hotline because their CAPTA funding depends on it. For the same reason, they all have child abuse registries and follow a number of other congressionally determined rules.

Lately, Congress has been looking at a proposal that would greatly increase the amount of money going through CAPTA—money flowing to the states in recognition of, and to facilitate the states’ adherence to, CAPTA guidelines. When I say “greatly increase,” I mean they’re looking to roughly triple the funding.

But there are serious flaws in the CAPTA program—flaws that traumatize millions of children in innocent families; tripling the funding would only magnify those flaws. 

So we wrote a letter to the leaders of every party in each chamber of Congress: Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in the House and Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in the Senate.

Our letter, which you can read here, highlights three problems in particular that must be addressed before we spend even one more dollar in CAPTA funding.

“Confidential” Rather Than “Anonymous”

First, anonymous reporting must be eliminated. It was through CAPTA’s establishment of child abuse hotlines that anonymous reporting became such a major part of reality all over the country. To receive funding, a state must have a hotline and a means by which someone can call in a report without revealing their identity to the alleged abuser.

But, as one might expect, such a system has become “weaponized.” Everyone from busybody in-laws to disgruntled exes in nasty divorces—even strangers off the street!—can place a call, put you in hot water, and never face any consequences of their own.

Nationally, only four percent of anonymous hotline calls —that’s one in 25—result in a substantiated finding of abuse or neglect.

This problem can easily be addressed by requiring that the caller, while remaining anonymous to the alleged abuser, provide identifying information to the hotline operator. This “confidential reporting” would cut down tremendously on the number of false and malicious calls going into the system and would allow the states to identify and prosecute those who repeatedly make reports in bad faith.

“Off-Ramp” for Pointless Investigations

Second, open-ended investigations should likewise cease. Currently, CAPTA calls for certain details to be reviewed any time a family is brought to the attention of a child welfare organization, and states have added their own items to this laundry list. In essence, every anonymous call can quickly turn into a full review of everything in your house—even if none of it has anything to do with the allegations against you.

To correct this problem, we called for common sense “off ramp” measures that allow an investigator to halt any investigation once it is determined the hotline call was false.

A case our own Jim Mason was involved in some time ago through his work with Home School Legal Defense Association is helpful to illustrate this point. A mom called in because an investigator was at the door and wanted to see the house and the children. Mom explained that the hotline had apparently received an anonymous call alleging that she let her toddler children play around their in-ground pool all day without supervision.

But there were two details that would immediately allow any investigator to know the call was false. First, her children were all teenagers. And second, they didn’t even own a pool!

Under current practices, the investigator still had boxes to check. Did she look in the refrigerator to verify there is food in the house? Did she interview each child separately, and away from the parents? Did she check them over for bruises? With a common sense “exit-ramp” provision, the investigator could easily write down “No toddlers, no pool” and close the investigation.

When to Remove a Child from the Home?

And finally, while CAPTA provides funding to states whenever it is deemed necessary to remove children from their home, there is no “standard of removal” in the act. Instead, states must rely on the unrelated Social Security Act, which says children can be removed from any circumstance deemed to be “contrary to the welfare of the child.” But that standard has proven too porous and vague.

If through CAPTA the federal government is going to pay for the removal of children from their homes, the same act should provide careful guidelines to make sure children do not suffer the irreversible trauma of removal when it isn’t called for.

Last year 83 percent of all child welfare investigations were closed as unfounded or unsubstantiated. That means that, for every child rescued from abuse or neglect, five innocent families were traumatized needlessly. Confidential reporting, off-ramp options, and especially a removal standard could help eliminate this unnecessary trauma without stopping the valid work—in fact, they will free more resources for the valid work—of finding and aiding children in actual need.

More Than “Mailing It In”

Under the current pandemic protocols, we aren’t able to muster volunteers and deliver this letter to the congressional leaders in dramatic fashion as we might do in other circumstances. But that didn’t keep us from getting our concerns where they needed to go.

Because our Capitol Hill liaison, Maggie McKneely, has been working on parental rights issues since long before COVID-19, she already had contacts with members of the staff in crucial offices. So she was able to email our letter directly to the attention of those who needed to see and address our concerns.

Yes, technically, we “mailed it in.” But those preexisting relationships have smoothed the way to make sure your concerns for protecting innocent families from trauma will be heard. What’s more, they mean Maggie can continue to monitor the letter’s progress and the discussions that ensue.

So even in the days of lockdown, ParentalRights.org is still making our presence known in Congress as we stand together to protect children and preserve parental rights.

Sincerely

Michael Ramey
Executive Director