Imagine for a moment that you were the neighbor of 10-year-old Ayden Wolfe, the Harlem boy who was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend in early March. You call the police when you hear screams from the family’s apartment—a woman yelling “Stop,” and a man demanding whether she wanted to be next.
Now, here’s the question: Would you give your name to the police? Consider that there are only eight apartments on the floor, and you are dealing with a man who has already had run-ins with the law because of domestic abuse. Wouldn’t you worry he would figure out who reported him or that some CPS investigator might let it slip? In fact, you might not call at all.
We don’t know who actually reported what was coming out of the apartment or whether they gave their name to authorities, but a growing number of advocates want to ban the anonymous reporting of child abuse even though the effects could be detrimental to children’s safety. In Texas, State Rep. Gary Gates has proposed a bill that would “prohibit the department from accepting a report made by a person unwilling to provide basic identifying information.” Last year, a New York legislator introduced a similar bill.
Proponents suggest that many anonymous reports are made out of ignorance or malice, and that they needlessly divert resources of child welfare away from real problems. While it is true that anonymous reports are sometimes used by parents in bitter custody battles who want to cast suspicions on their former spouses or significant others, proponents of the legislation do not offer evidence that, on the whole, anonymous reports are less likely to be accurate than other reports.
In the Washington Post, for instance, Dale Margolin Cecka, a professor of law at the University of Richmond, wrote that we should be wary of anonymous reports, but then expands that warning to include any reports not made by a mandated reporter (doctors, teachers, social workers, etc.). Nonprofessionals have not been trained in how to spot abuse or neglect, she argued, which results in a lot of false reports.
Of course, mandated reporters also end up reporting a lot of children who are not actually being abused or neglected and may be more likely to do so because there are serious financial penalties (and even possible jail time) in most states for not reporting if you are a mandated reporter. Neighbors, friends, relatives or passers by simply don’t have the same incentive to report abuse.
In 2019, anonymous reports constituted about 6.5% of calls to child abuse hotlines that were “screened in,” meaning that Child Protective Services decided that there was something in the report worthy of further investigation. It is true that anonymous calls are sometimes used by parents in custody disputes, but “it’s often quite obvious” when calls are malicious, according to Penn State University professor Sarah Anne Font, who used to be a caseworker herself but is now a professor studying child welfare. In an email, Font noted that it may seem as though many anonymous reports are false, but anonymous reports by their very nature are hard to substantiate because “the person making the call is unwilling to provide formal testimony on what they know or witnessed.”
Anonymous reports are used not only by neighbors who worry for their safety but also by relatives who fear that they will lose access to the child if a parent finds out they have been reported for abuse or neglect. False reports of child abuse and neglect (whether malicious or not) are a real problem. But we need to handle them the same way we handle other false reports of crime—with investigations and punishments for the offenders. As one former child welfare official told me, adopting “an artificial way to reduce reports (like barring anonymous sources) doesn’t actually protect children.”