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.