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Intrusive, coercive child protection process must be reformed

In 1974, a federal law was passed requiring doctors, many healthcare professionals and others to make a report to the state's child protection agency when they reasonably suspect child abuse or neglect.

According to data from 2016, child abuse hotlines received calls about 7.4 million American children. Last fiscal year in Illinois, for example, 77,422 families were investigated for potential child abuse or neglect. However only 20,023 -- just over 25 percent -- of those investigations concluded there actually was abuse or neglect.

The other 75 percent, whose cases would ultimately be found unsubstantiated, still suffered serious harm. In many cases, they were nevertheless threatened with having their children taken away. Often, this threat was issued in order to coerce parents into accepting a highly intrusive "safety plan" for their children during the investigation. The safety plan often calls for 24/7 supervision of the family until the investigation is complete -- sometimes for weeks or months.

Hotline calls often target sick and injured kids

Diane Redleaf, Co-chair of an Illinois group called United Family Advocates, works with families who have been drawn into that state's Child Protective Services process. She recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic on how state child protection services subject far too many families to intrusive safety plans, often when those families are in distress due to a sick or injured child.

Redleaf details one case in which a child with a rare genetic disorder was brought to a Peoria hospital. There, a member of the care team misread a CT scan as showing a skull fracture. The person didn't fact check with the rest of the care team or consider that child abuse was not a very likely cause of any fracture in this case.

Presumably having been told to call the hotline whenever there was any suspicion, the team member called and reported the possible skull fracture.

The ultimate result of that call was that a family already dealing with a terrifying child illness was wrongly accused of abuse and coerced into accepting a safety plan. Child Protective Services seems to have taken the misdiagnosis of the skull fracture at face value, never questioning the likelihood of abuse in a case where the child was in near-constant contact with doctors and showed no other signs of abuse.

Redleaf argues that, while hotline calls may be necessary to protect children, there should be a medical review before a call is made. That could reduce the number of truly innocent families being falsely accused -- and that would benefit the entire system by allowing more focus on families who actually need child protection interventions.

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