In some neighborhoods in this city, it’s not uncommon for people to file an allegation of child abuse or neglect to settle a grudge.

In a meeting with City Limits, lawyers and social workers from The Bronx Defenders, which represents parents with child welfare cases in the Bronx, described a string of such cases: a landlord who repeatedly called in child neglect complaints against a tenant whose housing support check wasn’t coming through; a neighbor who reported another neighbor for neglect after a fight over a missing cell phone escalated.

Attorney Ryan Napoli recalled a client living in a homeless shelter whose 15-day-old son was removed from her care after someone reported she was a drug-user and a domestic violence victim. Although her son was returned five days later, the investigation lasted six months, during which time Napoli’s client was required to separate from her boyfriend, enter a domestic violence shelter and be drug tested regularly (she passed each time) before her case was dismissed at trial, he says. Napoli’s client assumed the caller was another woman in the same homeless shelter who was jealous of her relationship with her boyfriend, but she couldn’t prove it because the call was made anonymously.

Across the divide, an organization representing foster and adoptive parents, New York State Citizens’ Coalition for Children, recently hosted a talk by attorney Margaret Burt, who said she regularly represents foster and adoptive parents who are the target of repeated harassing calls to the state's central registry of child abuse reports, often by biological parents who themselves feel powerless to reclaim their connection to their children.

Burt described one adoptive mother who had had 72 reports against her in a two-and-a-half month period. When the woman’s adopted children saw the child protective worker’s car pull up—a daily occurrence, Burt said—they would immediately start removing their clothes because they knew the investigator was going to check them for marks and bruises. Despite attempts to stop the calls—ACS reported the case to the district attorney, and the district attorney’s office took the case—the investigations didn’t stop until the caller phoned the White House and threatened President Obama. After that, Burt said, the woman was arrested and the investigations ceased.

Advocates for domestic violence survivors, in particular, have long been concerned about the role such reports play in keeping women in violent relationships and in punishing them when they leave them. “We see the threat of false reports to child welfare and then actual malicious and retaliatory reporting by batterers at all different stages of abusive relationships, and we see it frequently,” explains Liz Roberts, Chief Program Officer for Safe Horizon, the largest provider of services to survivors of domestic violence in the country.

Just what to do about such calls, however, is a conundrum for a system that was built around encouraging people to speak out whenever they believe a child is being harmed and charged with the unenviable task of determining not only whether a child has been abused or neglected, but also with predicting whether that child will be hurt in the future.

Scope of problem unknown

Neither Roberts nor other advocates can point with precision to how large a problem malicious false reporting is.

“It’s not something we track, and I can’t tell you that it’s X percent of cases. But if you ask any of our staff members who have been around for a while, they’ll tell you they’ve heard about such cases many times," says Roberts, who worked at New York City’s Children’s Services (ACS) from 2000 to 2010, and was the agency’s first director of domestic violence policy. "Batterers are opportunistic. When they realize just how important the children are to the victim, that threat—that 'I’ll call ACS and tell them you’re an unfit mother'—holds a lot of weight.”

For most people in middle-class neighborhoods, this kind of harassment is a reality they’re lucky never to have even imagined. More children are removed from eight of the city’s poorest neighborhoods than from New York City’s other 42 neighborhoods combined, and in places like East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Jamaica and some of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx, abusive exes and vindictive neighbors know little evidence is required to trigger a terrifying investigation.

Even when a parent has been investigated dozens of times without any finding of maltreatment, ACS will not flag those cases or counsel investigators to approach any particular investigation with particular skepticism—in case a family’s situation changes and children who once appeared safe wind up not being so.

State law does require ACS to send reports it believes to be maliciously false to the appropriate District Attorney’s office. But advocates told City Limits their experiences suggest such cases are rarely tried. “These cases are extremely difficult to prove,” says Roberts. “Abusers can be pretty savvy, giving allegations that are difficult to completely disprove. The worst offenders do things like use pay phones and never give their names.”

In 2011, instead of simply shrugging off such calls as an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of protecting children, ACS took a step to more deeply understand the problem through the eyes of survivors and their children. It agreed to a series of trainings by Voices of Women (VOW), a grassroots group of domestic violence survivors, many of whose members have themselves been the victims of false and malicious reporting. To date, VOW says, it has trained approximately 250 ACS frontline staff, supervisors and upper management.

A personal stake

“When a report is given, people have a visceral reaction that it just might be happening and it’s very hard to say: Don’t investigate that case. Nobody wants to be responsible for leaving a child in a dangerous situation,” says Singh.

One thing VOW tries to show in its trainings—a fictional skit of a 60-day investigation based on the real accounts they say they have collected over the years—is that false and malicious reports, and the policies that allow them to go relatively unchecked, themselves hurt children.

Sometimes the investigations impede a family’s recovery from earlier trauma. Roberts recalls three children she counseled whose father made a handful of false reports against their mother over a two-year period. “In that case,” says Roberts, “there was every reason to believe the allegations were false, and the child welfare folks were respectful and did the right thing.

Still, each time, they had to interview the mother. They had to interview the children separately. They had to open the fridge and look in the apartment. Every time the child protective worker interviewed the children, they knew: ‘My father wants me to say bad things about my mother, but I don’t want to say bad thing about her.’ It really got in the way of the family healing.”

Other times, the calls can have a more profound impact, especially when a parent is in fact struggling—with depression, with homelessness, or is fighting with an older child who’s aligned with the batterer in some way. Those very real problems combined with a false report—often of flagrant forms of abuse or neglect—may lead child protective workers to conclude that children need to be removed rather than that the family needs to be supported.

In the testimony VOW has collected from survivors over the years, they describe one mother who lost custody of her children after the father reported that she was delusional. The report, combined with the fact that the mother was living in a homeless shelter while her husband had two jobs and was living in a stable home, may have tipped the case in his favor. “The best case scenario is that the family gets help with those stressors, and we see that,” says Roberts. “But the worst case scenario is that it could lead to a court case that then becomes another enormous stressor for the family to manage.”

But it may be the fear that such investigations arouse within a whole community that has the most widespread impact. For people who are already vulnerable—feeling powerless bcause of poverty and past trauma—the realization that anyone can call in a report against them at any time can be particularly devastating.

VOW tells the story of one undocumented immigrant who took her 2-month-old daughter and fled her abusive husband, an American citizen. But when her husband threatened to report her to immigration and called in a report to the state central registry alleging that she was mentally ill and harming the baby, she gave up custody of her daughter to him. Three years later, VOW says, she is still fighting in family court to win overnight visits with her daughter.

ACS workers face pressures

Through their skit, VOW tries to help workers understand the fear that many survivors live with. They explain that some women are afraid to even speak up about who might be reporting them, and counsel workers to ask certain questions, like: “Are you in court fighting for custody, visitation, or divorce? Have you recently sought an order of protection?” Those, they say, may be red flags that a batterer is making a call as a means of extending his power and control.

They also listen to workers’ frustrations with domestic violence survivors who hide their problems and don’t cooperate—making investigators’ brutally hard jobs that much harder. Still, they tell workers, if you go into a home without understanding the patterns of domestic violence, then the victim sees you as just another abuser.

For Roberts, this is an issue with no easy answers. “Sixty percent of reports are unfounded,” says Roberts, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean the report was malicious. Responsible citizens can make reports who don’t understand the law or who don’t have enough information, or they may have reasonable cause to be concerned, but there was just not enough evidence.”

Roberts believes one of the most important steps investigators can take is to document their suspicions in their case notes well, so that if there is a repeat call, the next investigator walks into the home with information. ACS should also continue to try to build trust in communities, says Roberts—so that domestic violence survivors know that if they reach out for support for themselves and to keep their children safe, they won’t be punished. That way, says Roberts, “batterers’ threats and exaggerations wouldn’t carry as much weight.”

Is anonymity appropriate?

Martin Guggenheim, the founder of New York University Law School’s Family Defense Clinic and a leading advocate for the rights of parents in child welfare cases, believes state legislators and the state’s Office of Children and Family Services could take more concrete steps to reduce the impact of the crime.

One solution, says Guggenheim, might be to limit the number of repeated anonymous calls that the hotline is willing to accept. (Guggenheim notes that on paper, the law does not allow anonymous reports, even though accepting anonymous calls is standard practice. Moreover, says Guggenheim, in the handful of states that do not allow anonymity, no studies have shown that children are less safe.)

Even if the state did not want to refuse to accept all anonymous calls, says Guggenheim, at a certain point it could decide to refuse to accept repeated unfounded calls without the caller offering identifying information. This, in turn, might dissuade some harassment. It also might make it easier to prosecute some of the most egregious cases.

Guggenheim believes that a system of differential response might also go a long way in helping victims feel less violated. If, for instance, calls were repeatedly made anonymously, if all previous investigations had been unfounded, and if there were reason to believe that the calls were being made maliciously, then the state could have a way of noting this, of informing investigators of this, and of having investigators enter the home in a way that was less invasive.

“I think it would make a world of difference to a parent,” says Guggenheim, “if the person who comes to the home the next time were to say, ‘I’m very sorry to be visiting you again. I hope you can understand that I’m required to do this. All I need to do is take a look at your child.’

“I’m not sure this would ever lead to a victim feeling that everything that just happened is fair…But the fact that parents now go through the whole gamut of an investigation each time greatly exacerbates the problem… Ultimately it would be saying that the state has an equal interest in protecting children from harm as protecting families being investigated for harm to children.”