If we can’t get through, we’ll go around.
That’s our plan for protecting parental rights relating to child welfare investigations. We won’t give up. We won’t quit.
Because if Congress won’t protect families, we’ll find another way.
Right now we can’t afford not to. Not when a good parent can spend ten years or more on a child abuse registry even after the judge cleared her of all suspicion of abuse.
That’s what happened to Hope, a New York mom targeted for an abuse investigation by an anonymous phone call during a heated divorce.
There was never any abuse, never any reason for the call. Hope was quickly found innocent both in family and criminal court. But her name went on the register anyway, and stayed there for ten years.
She was suspended from her job when this black mark showed up on her background check. She couldn’t pursue a dream of working with children, or even help with her daughter’s mentoring program.
Unfortunately for Hope and parents like her, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (or CAPTA), which created the hotline and registry systems in the first place, didn’t call for any “due process” protections before parents like her could be put on those lists.
That’s bad news for good, loving parents everywhere.
So when we learned CAPTA was going to be up for reauthorization this year, making use of the opportunity to fix these problems became our top priority.
CAPTA works by providing much sought-after federal funding for state child welfare investigation agencies. In order to get those funds, every state will jump through the hoops CAPTA sets for them.
So we knew right away: if we can improve parental rights in CAPTA – changing the hoops they have to jump through – we can improve the way families are treated all over the country. We can keep other parents from suffering as Hope has.
Fixing this one act was the most efficient way to protect all our children. So, we went all-in.
We didn’t just email, write, call, and visit members of Congress. We plugged in with family rights allies from across the political spectrum and asked them to go with us.
Whenever we visited a Democrat lawmaker’s office, we were sure to have an expert with us from the left side of the aisle. And every time we visited a Republican, we went with an expert from the right side of the aisle.
Whichever party we needed to talk to, we could almost guarantee they would meet with us.
Sadly, Congress proved (as they so often do) that “meeting with us” and “hearing us” are two different things. So when the House presented their version of the bill, our improvements hadn’t made the cut.
We weren’t pushing for anything crazy. We just shined a light on a few troubling matters that have had a clearly negative impact on child welfare outcomes through the years. We even presented reasonable solutions for those problems—solutions our allies on both sides of the aisle agree with.
We pushed for an amendment to CAPTA that would protect a parent’s right to due process before their name is put on a child abuse registry. It was CAPTA that first required those registries, but its lack of a “due process” provision means parents in most states can be put on the list simply on the whim of the investigator assigned to their case.
This happened to Hope even after she was cleared of all charges in both criminal and family court!
If CAPTA had included our edit—or something like it— then Hope wouldn’t have spent ten years under the black mark of shame that comes from being falsely labelled a “child abuser.”
CAPTA created that mess, so it’s the perfect vehicle to fix it. But the House apparently doesn’t think there’s a problem to be fixed.
We also pushed for an amendment to replace anonymous reporting with confidential reporting. With its call for the establishment of 24/7 anonymous child abuse hotlines, CAPTA created another problem: national statistics show that a shocking 96% of all anonymous reports are unreliable.
Just like the anonymous call that did so much to destroy Hope’s life for a decade.
Under CAPTA, every call must be investigated. That means for every one valid anonymous tip, twenty-four are wasting the agency’s time—time that could be spent finding and helping victims of actual abuse.
We told Congress that by replacing anonymous reporting with confidential reporting we could empower the system to recognize and act on trends of abusing the system. If a jilted ex keeps calling in false reports to build his or her custody case, the agency can spot that behavior and report it to the courts. Innocent families could be saved.
But the House didn’t seem to think that was a problem, either.
And we asked for the inclusion of a removal standard—a level of evidence or expectation of imminent harm that must be met before a child can be removed from their family home without a court order.
As it is, innocent families are torn apart every day on the whim of a child welfare investigator with little or no evidence of abuse. And too many of these removals happen under “emergency circumstances,” with no prior review by a judge. A standard of removal would correct this error.
Sadly, while the members and staff we talked to all nodded in agreement and understood these concerns, they apparently didn’t understand them enough to be sure they were addressed in the reauthorization bill.
Still, we weren’t finished trying to make these crucial changes. And we aren’t giving up now, either. But we are looking at another option.
We’re not giving up, because there’s still a chance to fix CAPTA in the Senate. They could take any or all of our recommendations and insert them in their own version of the bill, then iron out the differences in “conference committee.” (That’s where members of the House and members of the Senate come together to create a version both chambers can agree on.)
But we’re not holding our breath on those efforts being any more successful in the Senate than in the House. With each chamber under the leadership of a different party, there are more closed-door politics than open, respectful discussions taking place on Capitol Hill.
With the House looking to make CAPTA worse, it may be all the Senate can do to be sure we break even.
If that proves true, none of these fixes will make it into CAPTA in any meaningful way.
No changes will be made and no families will be helped.
But what if there is another way? Another way we could keep children from being needlessly harmed by invasive investigations?
Well, we think we’ve found one. It’s just going to take a lot more time and effort.
Since Congress won’t fix these issues in CAPTA for all fifty states, we’ll go to the states themselves.
Instead of using CAPTA to help families by changing the hoops that every state has to jump through, we’ll make each state get a hoop.
It could be a while before we get all fifty. But we’ll start with a few right away and encourage the movement to grow.
On the matter of due process, for instance, a few states already have some minimal protection. CAPTA requires a registry, and it doesn’t require protections for innocent parents. But that hasn’t stopped North Carolina, Vermont, Idaho, and Connecticut from passing laws of their own to protect those rights.
Sadly, a recent review shows that only these four states currently provide any due process protection at all. And the protection these states offer varies from “lukewarm” to “scant.”
But the fact that they offer protection at all proves every other state can follow their example—and better—if they want to. We just have to get them started.
This may be a tough fight, and it’s going to constitute a significant shift in our immediate focus. We are certainly not giving up on the Parental Rights Amendment, but that is a long-term project that is going to require a kind of bipartisanship not to be found in D.C. today.
And we’re not giving up on securing parents’ rights through CAPTA, either. We will continue to fight its harmful content by visiting and educating Senators and their offices.
But both the Amendment and our recommendations to CAPTA are top-down goals. They would fix our country’s abuse of parental rights on the federal level. But they require Congress to act. And that means they will take time to achieve.
Addressing this in the states is a more immediately achievable, bottom-up fix. But we have to start now.
If we wait to see what the Senate does with CAPTA, it will be too late. State lawmakers are deciding their agenda for January right now. If we wait and the Senate doesn’t come through, we will lose the entire 2020 legislative session.
And let’s face it; we’re just not likely to see these long-term improvements come from Congress this year.
On the other hand, we’re excited by what we can achieve with this focus on state efforts. Most of the fixes we wanted in CAPTA are still within reach by this new approach.
Each state can pass a high-bar removal standard and still be eligible for CAPTA funds. Each state can adopt due process protections before listing parents on their registry, without surrendering those federal grants. We can draft model language to accomplish that and give it to state lawmakers to run with.
What’s more, last year’s Resolutionary campaign built our network in the states, while this year’s congressional efforts built relationships with new partners across the spectrum. These are huge points in our favor.
We’re ready to plunge forward into this fight.
But it’s still going to take a lot of time, effort, and resources to succeed.
Will you partner with us to take on this new task? Your generous contribution will empower us to keep our presence in Congress even as we take our fight for families to the states.
We can’t afford to stop now. Families like Hope’s are counting on us to secure the rights of innocent parents any way we can.
James R. Mason
P.S. — The ideals we have for the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, including due process, a standard of removal, and other family-protecting measures, are still achievable in the states, even if Congress won’t “play ball.” And parents are counting on us to secure these rights and hold their families together. Children need the security these simple rights can provide. Please partner with us through your best gift today as we take this battle from Congress to the states!