By Joyce Prusak
Executive Director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center
Imagine this situation: A step-father sexually abuses a 5-year-old girl. The mother has been suffering abuse from him for years, and when she finds out he abuses her daughter, she decides to make a report to the child abuse hotline. Do you think the mother will feel safe providing her name? Will she be scared? Will she be safe during the investigation, or will she be afraid he will retaliate against her, intensifying the abuse?
Imagine this: You are the teacher of a 9-year-old boy who comes to school with bruises and black eyes. You want to report the suspected abuse, but know that the child’s parent has a history of violence. You know you have to report the suspected abuse, but you would rather not give your name out of fear of threats to yourself or family. You decide to give your name because you know the investigator may have more questions, but now you know that your name may be open to discovery under a change in law.
What about the following situation? You find out that your brother sexually abuses his 4-year-old daughter, your niece. Would it be easier to report if you could do it anonymously?
Reporting suspected child abuse is difficult for anyone who has ever had to make that call. It is not a call that is made lightly. Taking away the protection of anonymity would make it more difficult and may cause some to not report at all. We cannot afford, our children cannot afford, more barriers to reporting abuse.
During the last legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers pushed to end anonymous reporting of child abuse and neglect. This proposed bill, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling, would be harmful to children suffering abuse and would have chilling effects on callers who may be afraid of retaliation if their identity is exposed. Supporters of the bill claim that anonymous reporting allows for potential of false reports of allegations of child abuse. There are already protections against false reports.
When a report of child abuse is submitted, the next step is investigating to find out if there’s sufficient evidence that abuse occurred. The report just triggers an investigation, it doesn’t lead to the arrest of the alleged abuser. Investigators are trained and know how to find out which reports are substantiated. Only when sufficient evidence of child abuse or neglect exists, the next steps of the investigation process take place. Child protective service agencies investigate about 55% of the child sexual abuse incidents reported to them. The rest are “screened out” for lack of adequate information or for other reasons. Of those reports investigated, only a portion meets the criteria for “substantiated,” according to data provided by Darkness to Light. These facts show that even in a case of a false report (which is extremely rare) there would be no detrimental consequences for the adult against whom a false report has been filed – without evidence of committed child abuse, the investigation is terminated.
Even with the possibility to report anonymously, most child abuse is not reported. Eliminating the anonymous reporting option, would lead to even fewer reports. Only about one third of child sexual abuse incidents are identified, and even fewer are reported. Studies show that only 38% of child victims disclose that they have been sexually abused. Of them, 40% tell a close friend, rather than an adult or authority, and these “friend-to-friend” disclosures often don’t result in reports, according to Darkness to Light. These numbers reveal that the vast majority of child sexual abuse incidents are never reported to authorities.
Tennessee is a mandated reporter state which means that anyone with suspicions of child abuse must report the suspected abuse. A hotline through the Department of Children’s Services allows individuals to report anonymously. DCS acts on that tip within 48 hours. DCS will work with law enforcement to determine if there is evidence of abuse. Reporting abuse is vital because it is extremely rare that abuse is reported from the child directly to law enforcement, or from the child to DCS.
The individuals who report child abuse are the ones that make a tremendous, positive difference in children’s lives. They are often the ones who help put a stop to the abuse and help children begin their healing.
It is unknown if this bill will reemerge in the next legislative session, but child advocates across the state are paying close attention. The bill was the subject of a summer study session earlier this year, but the future of it remains unknown.
To report child abuse or neglect, call the child abuse hotline at 877-237-0004 or visit the Department of Children’s Services website.
To learn more about child abuse prevention, follow Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center on social media and visit coffeecountycac.org.