Preventing Bad Ideas in Federal Law

US house CAPTA

Dear Parental Rights Champion,

You know the power of a good idea. Or a bad one.

Corey Widen’s eight-year-old daughter had just returned from walking the dog around the block—most of which Corey could see from her windows—when there was a troubling knock at the door. It was the Wilmette (IL) police, responding to a call of a pre-schooler out unsupervised.

Corey cleared up the false information the police had gotten from an anonymous hotline call, and the police concluded their investigation: no signs of abuse or neglect.

Corey was unsettled to find the police at her door, but it wasn’t a big deal once it was done.

Then the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) showed up.

Yes, they knew the police had already investigated. They knew the police found no evidence of abuse or neglect. But DCFS policy requires that they themselves investigate every call that comes in to the hotline.

And that’s a bad idea.

In Widen’s case, that involved entering the home, talking with the children, and interviewing the family’s neighbors and pediatrician. The full-scale investigation invaded the family for a period not merely of hours, but of weeks—and found no abuse, just like the police.

Sadly, this is how the system works in most of America today. And it’s funded by the federal government through the Child Abuse Prevent and Treatment Act (CAPTA).

So when the Civil Rights and Human Resources subcommittee of the U.S. House Education and Work Force Committee met recently to discuss CAPTA, which is due for renewal, we watched with bated breath.

Both political parties in D.C. had expressed a will to renew it this Spring.

But will the ideas they introduce help families, or hurt them?

Sometimes the only thing scarier than Democrats and Republicans clashing in Congress is when they don’t—and we know this could be one of those times.

Rumors were flying before the hearing about a few nightmare provisions that might be added. Provisions that would make child welfare programs worse. Provisions that would violate innocent homes. Provisions to target home schoolers or other minority-viewpoint families.

We were on high alert.

But we didn’t just wait to see what would happen.

Alongside a bipartisan group of family advocates, we took our positions to the members of the committee. We gave them a report in writing of the changes we would like to see—and some we would urge them to oppose.

We even asked our friends on the committee to look into getting our coalition a spot on the four-person witness list. We wanted to provide one of the voices that would define the hearing.

We didn’t get a spot this time, but it turns out we didn’t need to.

The hearing was held March 26, and we were there. Hanging on every word, we looked for the first clues on Congress’ goals in amending CAPTA.

We were pleasantly surprised.

Though the speakers came from opposing sides of the aisle, all four agreed—and agreed with us—on some critical issues.

  • They agreed prevention is better than intervention, that efforts to support families are more cost-effective than efforts that divide
  • They acknowledged that separating families causes trauma to children.
  • They noted in crystal clear terms that “poverty” does not equal “neglect.”

And the members of the committee seemed to agree with them. It was refreshing to see.

When we checked back with our friends on the committee, they confirmed what we were beginning to suspect:

Our report had been instrumental in calling attention to certain important parental rights issues, and in swaying members to address them.

The impact of that report is no small thing. Without your consistent partnership over the years, our report would not have gotten so far. Your support gave weight to our report and ensured that our concerns were heard.

It was a great day.

But it was only one day.

Those rumors that had been flying around? Those came from somewhere.

Somewhere, someone really was promoting ideas to threaten your parental rights, your family. Someone has suggested a special section of CAPTA just to address home schoolers. Someone else—or likely several “someones”—proposed “predictive analytics,” to target certain families because they meet a “profile” that may indicate abuse is coming (though no abuse has occurred).

Still others are encouraging Congress to spend more money on the same bad ideas that are destroying innocent families, supporting the system that invaded Corey Widen’s family for weeks because she let her daughter walk the dog. The over-worked system that keeps missing the children who really need help.

We don’t know specific names or proposed language. But we know the threats are there.

And we know from experience that the threats whispered about in this round will be argued in the next, and maybe adopted in the one after that.

The only way to stop bad ideas once they’re introduced into the discussion is to pass better ideas in their place. So that’s what we’re trying to do. While Congress is united to address CAPTA, we need to persuade them to make changes for the good.

But it won’t be easy.

One bad idea already made its way into the hearing—the concept of a national child abuse registry.

It wasn’t put into so many words. And it sounded so reasonable. Surely it would help if one state could know whether a family was under investigation or even substantiated for a previous case of abuse in another state. Right?

But child abuse registries are not that simple.

The biggest problem is what it takes to get on one (or what it doesn’t take). If a child welfare investigator decides you are guilty of abuse, they can list you on the registry. No charges. No trial. No ruling by the court.

In fact, in her new book They Took the Kids Last Night, Diane Redleaf relates one case in which the judge determined the child abuse accusation was unfounded—and still the parents were listed on the registry.

Each parent had a career potentially working with children. One was in insurance, the other a trained social worker. What would happen when a potential new employer ran a background check and found them on the registry for child abusers?

Imagine if you lost your job because someone decided – contrary to the decision of a judge – that you were guilty of abuse. Your whole life affected because one investigator decided they don’t like you.

Fortunately for that couple, their current employers knew what was going on, and neither of them had to change jobs during the process. But what a process it was!

It took the parents a costly months-long appeal to get their names removed. By then, though they managed to avoid the destruction of their careers, their reputations had still been irreparably harmed. Think of how much worse the harm would be if that registry had been national rather than just in their state!

Fortunately, no one pushed the national registry idea too loudly in the CAPTA hearing. There was just a mention that states need to be better able to communicate with each other.

But it is something we will keep an eye on. It’s an idea that can put innocent parents at risk.

It’s an idea that can put your family and mine at risk.

Fortunately, thanks to your generous past support, we were able to be there. We were able to listen, to bear witness, to monitor, and to respond.

And we were able to make our concerns and preferences known going in, with a voice that the committee respected and chose to hear.

The difference we have made so far is all because of you. You have enabled us to move forward.

But we’re a long way from finished.

Though the subcommittee had a hearing, CAPTA hasn’t been renewed yet. There are a lot of steps that need to happen first, including multiple hearings, debates, and votes.

And every step creates an opportunity for some of those dangerous ideas to creep in, as well.

The Democrats and Republicans are unified on passing CAPTA. So, if bad ideas squeeze their way in, there will be no one left to stop them.

That is what we’re standing guard against.

The force of both parties working together makes this a crucial time, for good or for bad. There is so much at stake.

Will you stand guard with us? Your donation of $25, $50, or $100 can enable us to protect families from potentially dangerous ideas in this key federal legislation.

We have to be vigilant. We have to be both proactive and responsive.

We have to be the eyes, ears, and mouthpiece for innocent American families.

We have to make sure the new law makes experiences like Corey’s rarer—or even unheard of—and not more commonplace.

With your help, we will do just that.

Sincerely,

James R. Mason

President

P.S. Families like Corey’s have already suffered because CAPTA has created a system that fails to respect their rights. And while the first hearing has passed, there is still so much work to do. Every step in the legislative process is another chance for enemies of your family to include bad ideas in the reauthorization bill.

But we are banding together—with parents and with other organizations—to ensure that children no longer suffer because their parents’ rights have been ignored. Will you be part of their defense? [First Name], will you stand with us to protect our families from even more abuses at the hands of Child Welfare? The time has come to mend the broken system—for all of us.