By Richard Wexler, NCCPR Executive Director, July 10, 2021
I spent a lot of years thinking that [mandated reporting] gets us to a better place; I’m disheartened to hear maybe it really doesn’t – and even if it does, perception is reality. A lot of well-credentialed, well-meaning experts think this doesn’t work. … I was taken aback to hear so much of that conversation. [Finding out if they’re right] should be Job One.
--Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, a member of the Massachusetts Mandatory Reporter Commission.
Toward the end of 2019, the Massachusetts Legislature created a commission to study the state’s mandatory child abuse reporting law. The commission consisted almost entirely of government officials. The commission was told to “review and report on existing mandated reporter laws and regulations and make recommendations on how to improve the response to, and prevention of, child abuse and neglect.”
Thus, had the commission concluded that the best way to prevent child abuse and neglect is to curb or even eliminate mandatory reporting it was free to recommend that the Legislature do so.
But that certainly wasn’t what the Legislature had in mind. Rather they bought the conventional wisdom that mandatory reporting is essential to protect children and the bigger the net of intervention into families, the better.
But between the end of 2019 and the end of June 2021, when the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission issued its final report, the world changed. It is inconceivable that today, the Massachusetts Legislature would study any part of a system that has a vastly disproportionate impact on children of color by naming a commission with almost no racial diversity and almost no diversity of professional experience; a commission with not even one member who had lost a child to foster care or been through the foster care system.
The racial justice reckoning that began by examining the abuses of the police is spreading to the abuses of the family police – a more accurate term than “child welfare agency” to describe agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. There is a rising tide of rebellion against the status quo in child welfare. There is a rising recognition that with its massive surveillance of impoverished families, its rush to consign children to the chaos of foster care, and its deeply embedded racial and class biases, the system is doing terrible harm to the children it is intended to help.
That is, of course, an enormous threat to the self-image of those who built the system and run it, such as top officials at DCF, its parent agency, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and, especially the Office of Child Advocate Maria Mossaides, who chaired and staffed the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission.
Few people could face up to the fact that their good intentions and sometimes their entire life’s work had backfired; their careers as “child savers” to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, did so much harm to the children they wanted to “save.” They continue to rationalize the system's failings and convince themselves that an even bigger, more coercive system will “save” children.
So the mission of Mossaides and her allies became to hold back the tide. For as long as possible they insulated the Commission from any voices of dissent, orchestrating presentations that supported only their point of view. Strip away the euphemisms and that point of view boils down to: There’s no such thing as too much surveillance of families; after all, it’s for their own good. So mandatory reporting should keep growing and the family police – DCF -- should have nearly unlimited power and control over poor families, especially poor families of color.
For a long time, the tide was held back. The Commission produced a series of draft recommendations, most of them awful. But the tide could be held back for only so long. By the time the recommendations were released, the world had a new appreciation of what policing, in all its forms, does to people of color. A rebellion began to grow among advocates across Massachusetts. So, far too late in the process, Mossaides had to hold public hearings.
That changed everything.
The hearings shocked some commissioners into realizing they’d been misled. As a result, the Commission’s final report, released June 30, is far better than it would have been had there been no public hearings.
Enough commissioners listened to the experts, and to victims of false reports – including foster and adoptive parents – and to advocates for battered women and others who testified against Mossaides’ draft proposals that ultimately the Commission made no formal recommendations at all, prompting us to call it the Seinfeld of commissions for recommending – nothing. Dissenting commissioners also made clear the kind of framing they did not want in the final report.
But as Mossaides and her staff finalized the report, she continued to try to hold back the tide. They continued to misrepresent the issue, the concerns, and the deliberations. The report is an extension of the same ugly mentality that has prompted Massachusetts to tear apart families at a rate 60% above the national average – a dismal distinction that has marked Massachusetts “child welfare” for decades – a distinction that is nowhere mentioned in the report.
The full Commission had very little time to review the 93-page final report. That left Mossaides and her staff plenty of opportunities to turn the report narrative into a backdoor way of “recommending” many of the bad ideas the Commission never voted to recommend. So though technically, the document is the final report of the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission a more accurate term is simply “the Mossaides Report.”
● After specifically promising not to make the false claim that the harm of needless surveillance of families, especially families of color somehow endangers children and so needs to be “balanced” with concern for child safety, they sneak this kind of false framing into the final report over and over.
● They engage in an Orwellian distortion of the position of advocates for battered women, turning their concern that one of the few good draft recommendations didn’t go nearly far enough into a justification for doing nothing.
● This is on top of the fundamental betrayal – spending more than a year exposing commissioners new to child welfare only to Mossaides’ and DCF’s point of view, leaving many commissioners, in their own words, “shocked” “surprised” and “taken aback” when they finally heard from leading scholars, battered women’s advocates and so many others.
● All of which means that two words in the report must be causing nothing but derisive laughter from the Berkshires to Cape Cod. We’ll reveal them at the very end, but here’s a hint: They’re on p.9.Although the Commission approved the issuance of the report, they
had to rush through a draft of 93 pages. With more time, we suspect there would have been many more changes. So while technically this is the report of a commission, as a practical matter it’s just the same old same old from Mossaides and her allies at DCF and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
Later, we will go through the report page-by-page. But first, an overview of the fundamental problems underlying Mossaides’ fundamental assumptions
HOW MANDATORY REPORTING BACKFIRES
The fundamental problem with mandatory reporting can be boiled down to three words: IT. DOESN’T. WORK.
Careful readers will note that at no point in the entire 93 pages does the Mossaides report cite a single study showing that mandatory reporting has made children safer. In contrast, there is abundant research that it backfires.
To understand how we got into this mess, it’s important to understand the history of mandated reporting. It was a panicky response to the “rediscovery” of child abuse in 1962. By 1967 every state had a mandatory reporting law. But even in this atmosphere of panic, there was enough common sense to strictly limit who had to report and what had to be reported. Mandatory reporters were almost exclusively doctors and they were mandated to report only serious physical abuse and sexual abuse.
But each time a new horror story made headlines, each time a politician saw a way to seize cheap glory from children’s suffering, the laws were expanded, both in terms of who had to report – now it’s almost anyone who has regular contact with children – and what to report, instead of just serious injuries it’s expanded to broad, vague definitions of neglect; so easily confused with poverty that there is hardly a poor child in America that some mandatory reporter somewhere wouldn’t feel required to report at some time.
It wasn’t long before, one after another, original backers of mandated reporting started having second thoughts.
● 1983: One of the biggest names in Massachusetts child welfare, Dr. Eli Newberger of Children’s Hospital in Boston writes that "had professionals, like me, known then what we know now, we would never have urged on Congress, federal and state officials broadened concepts of child abuse as the basis for reporting legislation."
● 1998: The National Research Council concludes that “Mandatory reporting requirements were adopted without evidence of their effectiveness; no reliable study has yet demonstrated their positive or negative effects on the health and well-being of children at risk of maltreatment, their parents and caregivers and service providers.”
● 2011: In the wake of the scandal involving former Penn State football coach (and former foster parent and group home operator) Jerry Sandusky, there are calls to vastly expand mandated reporting even further. But another leading proponent of these laws, Prof. David Finkelhor says: "Maybe it's better that people use discretion ... If everybody obeyed the letter of the law and reported a suspicion of abuse, the agencies would be completely overwhelmed with reports."
● Even the late Richard Gelles, among the most fervent proponents of what amounts to a “take the child and run” approach to child welfare, someone who advocated for orphanages and bragged about helping to write the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, opposed such expansion, writing: “Forty years after the first federal mandatory reporting law was enacted, there isn't a single study showing that investigations alone increase the safety of children.”
Now it’s been more than 50 years. And now there is solid research that mandatory reporting not only does no good – it backfires. It drives families away from seeking voluntary help. That should surprise no one. Would you confide your deepest fears, anger issues, depression to someone required to turn you in to the family police who can tear your children from your arms and force them into foster care? The fact that DCF doesn’t always do that isn’t the issue – the fact that they have the power to do that is enough to make people who need and want help think twice.
Among those most harmed: Children of battered mothers. In addition to all the other reasons they fear telling anyone and trying to flee their abusers, battered mothers have another fear: If they tell anyone what happened, and that person is a mandated reporter, DCF may be at their door, ready to tear away the children because the children “witnessed domestic violence.”
As is discussed in more detail later in this analysis, batterers know this. If a battered mother threatens to call the police, her abuser can say: Go ahead, call the cops! They’ll call DCF and DCF will take the kids.
By failing to recommend even the slightest change in this element of mandatory reporting, the Commission became a spouse abuser’s best friend.
The excuse for this failure is that witnessing domestic violence can be emotionally harmful to children. That is true. But taking the child from the nonoffending parent is far, far worse. We have full details here – and there is much more about how it plays out in Massachusetts when we get to specific Commission failings.
Driving battered mothers and others seeking help deeper into hiding
is not the only way mandatory reporting backfires. It also contributes mightily to the deluge of false reports that overload caseworkers. Nationwide, caseworkers themselves decide that 83% of the reports they investigate each year are false – and that’s after many reports are screened out as too absurd to investigate.
(Yeah, we know: Supporters of the child welfare surveillance state often claim the reports weren’t necessarily false the workers just couldn’t “prove” it. But no proof is required. A DCF worker need merely check a box on a form saying she thinks it is slightly more likely than not that “abuse” or “neglect” occurred – and the only study we know of to second-guess these judgments found that workers are two to six times more likely to wrongly substantiate an allegation than to wrongly label one unfounded.)
Most of what DCF doesn’t find to be false are cases involving “neglect.” In very rare cases neglect can be extremely serious, even fatal. But far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect.
All that time spent chasing down false reports, trivial cases and poverty cases is, in effect stolen from finding the very few children in real danger. The great paradox of the Massachusetts mentality is that each time the state responds to a child abuse tragedy by expanding mandatory reporting and otherwise widening the net of forced intervention and surveillance of families, it makes the next tragedy more likely.
So in addition to doing enormous harm to all the children needlessly forced to endure traumatic investigations, in addition to compounding that trauma when children are needlessly forced into foster care, in addition to increasing the risk children will be abused in foster care itself – where independent studies find far higher rates of abuse than shown in official figures, Massachusetts giant child welfare surveillance state, fueled by mandatory reporting makes all children less safe.
The price of “health terrorism”
As noted above, concerns about the failure of mandatory reporting go back decades. The research backs up those concerns. Yet few people know about it.
Part of the reason is best described in only two words: “health terrorism” Health terrorism is an ends-justify-the-means approach to advocacy that says it’s OK to distort the true nature of a problem in the name of “raising awareness.” (The phrase “health terrorism” did not originate with us. It was used by a group that admits to having engaged in it.) For decades, we’ve read stories that begin with a gruesome case of murder or torture. Then the story jumps to a statistic about millions of “reports” of “child abuse.” So in our minds, every report is true (almost all actually are false) and every report is like the horror stories. In fact, almost none are. To further embed in our minds the idea that mandatory reporting is such an obvious answer it is beyond even questioning, editors often tack on to the top or bottom of these stories the number for the state child abuse hotline and an admonition to use it.
So it’s no wonder that even after the hearing, a commissioner even more extreme than Mossaides, Kate Ginnis, of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, reacted to any idea that mandatory reporting should be abolished as if it is too insane even to contemplate. But the Massachusetts response to one child abuse tragedy after another is to expand mandatory reporting and/or other elements of the child welfare surveillance state. It’s never worked. And we all know the real definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
That does not mean child abuse reporting has never saved a life. But given everything the research shows us, and given that so many of the strongest former proponents in the scholarly community came to have second thoughts, it is likely that, by overloading the system and driving people away from seeking help before its too late, mandatory reporting causes more child abuse fatalities than it prevents.
It is the refusal to stop, think, and change course that is truly insane.
It is to the great credit of dissenting members of the Massachusetts Mandated Reporter Commission that, in spite of 50 years of health terrorism and a year of hearing nothing but propaganda stage-managed by Mossaides and her staff, the public hearing prompted them to do the first two. Their willingness to reconsider – to the point that the Commission issued no formal recommendations – is a vital first step toward making Massachusetts children safer.
The big lie of American child welfare – and the Mossaides Report
You’ve heard it over and over: the claim that child safety and family preservation are “opposites” or “competing interests” that must be “balanced.” Sure the child welfare surveillance state may hurt parents, but it is said, that has to be “balanced” against “child protection” or “child safety.” Anything that curbs the massive power of agencies like Massachusetts DCF supposedly increases the danger to children.
This is the Big Lie of American child welfare.
● The Big Lie demands that we ignore the enormous emotional trauma of a child abuse investigation itself. It is not a friendly visit. It is more like a police raid.
Here’s how an article in The New Yorker describes it:
You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks. …
You must be as calm and deferential as possible. However disrespectful and invasive she is, whatever awful things she accuses you of, you must remember that child protection has the power to remove your kids at any time if it believes them to be in danger. … If you get angry, your anger may be taken as a sign of mental instability, especially if the caseworker herself feels threatened.
You may never find out who reported you. If your child has been hurt, his teacher or doctor may have called the state child-abuse hotline, not wanting to assume, as she might in a richer neighborhood, that it was an accident. But it could also have been a neighbor who heard yelling, or an ex-boyfriend who wants to get back at you, or someone who thinks you drink too much or simply doesn’t like you. People know that a call to the hotline is an easy way to blow up your life. [Emphasis added.]
Now consider: Studies have found that one-third of all American children, and at least half of Black children will be forced to endure this trauma at some point in their childhoods.
● The Big Lie ignores the even worse trauma inflicted on children when they are needlessly placed in foster care. Though DCF caseworkers almost always mean well, it is the same trauma endured by children taken from their parents at the Mexican border. Again, from The New Yorker story:
If the caseworker believes your kids are in imminent danger, she may take them. You may not be allowed to say goodbye. It is terrifying for them to be taken from their home by a stranger, but this experience has repercussions far beyond the terror of that night. Your children may hear accusations against you—you’re using drugs, your apartment is filthy, you fail to get them to school, you hit them—and even if they don’t believe these things they will remember. And, after your children see that you are powerless to protect them, this will permanently change things between you. Whatever happens later—whether the kids come back the next week, or in six months, or don’t come back at all—that moment can never be undone.
So it’s no wonder study after study finds that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
● The Big Lie ignores the high rate of abuse in foster care itself. Independent studies repeatedly find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes; the rate in group homes and institutions is even worse. This is a far higher rate than DCF reports – because when DCF investigates abuse in foster care it is, of course, investigating itself.
● And, as noted earlier, the Big Lie ignores the fact overloading the system with false allegations trivial cases and poverty cases makes it even more likely that children in real danger will be missed.
So no, child safety and family preservation are not opposites. For the overwhelming majority of children, the overwhelming majority of the time family preservation is not only more humane than foster care it is safer than foster care. And even when a child isn’t placed, the trauma of an investigation is serious and real.
How the Big Lie gets into the Mossaides Report
When dissenters on the commission demanded that Mossaides add language in a preamble to the report making clear that there was no consensus and no votes on any recommendations, Mossaides and Ginnis immediately sought to insert the Big Lie into the report – with an extra dash of racial bias thrown in. They suggested adding language talking about, in Mossaides’ words, “balancing child protection and disproportionate impact on children of color.”
What could be more emblematic of racial bias than suggesting that racial justice is contrary to child safety?Fortunately, one of the dissenting commissioners, Angela Brooks,
director of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Children’s Justice Unit, called them out. She challenged the idea that “one side is expressed as protecting children and the other is societal inequities.” She said dissenting commissioners “are also [concerned about] protecting children; we’re concerned about the harm to children when unnecessarily removing them. The tension on how best to protect children is on both sides.”
So Mossaides backed off – but only in the preamble. She inserted similar ideas into the report itself over and over.
Another big distortion
Mossaides and her allies did everything possible to keep the general issue of whether mandatory reporting should be expanded at all out of deliberations and out of the report. So the report summarizes specific proposals to broaden mandated reporting with a detailed discussion of why each it might be a good idea. The opposing view often is boiled down to the same boilerplate sentence repeated over and over in a way that trivializes these concerns:
Serious concerns were raised about the potential societal harms of expanding the list of mandated reporters.
But those concerns were not limited to societal harms – they included specific harms to children. Turning this into bland boilerplate is a great way to leave the impression that these concerns really are no big deal.
THE REPORT, PAGE BY PAGE
We will go through the distortions and misrepresentations page-by-page in the order they appear -- with one exception. We start on page 46 with a particularly egregious breach of faith. One statement in the Mossaides Report effectively reverses the meaning of public testimony in order to advance the goals of Mossaides and her allies. It concerns one of the biggest problems with mandatory reporting: The harm done to the children of battered mothers.
Of all the tragedies inflicted on children by the nation’s family policing agencies, few are worse than tearing a child away from a parent (usually a mother) whose only “crime” is to herself be a survivor of domestic violence.
All of the trauma for a child is compounded when the removal is for this reason. One expert calls it “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.” He testified in a lawsuit that led to making the practice illegal in New York State. (NCCPR’s Vice President was co-counsel for plaintiffs.) But, as I’ve often written before, in much of the country, family police policy on this issue boils down to “please pass the salt.” That is certainly true in Massachusetts. And Mossaides and DCF are fighting tooth and nail to keep things just the way they are.
The harm begins with mandatory reporting. A battered woman works up the courage to break free from her abuser, often for the sake of the children. But almost anywhere she turns for help, the helper is a “mandated reporter.” Whether that reporter thinks it’s a good idea or is just afraid to do otherwise, the reporter may well call the family police. If you want to know what happens next, please take two minutes – just two minutes – to listen to this excerpt from the testimony of Western Massachusetts Attorney Michelle Lucier at one of the two Commission hearings:
One of only two or three draft recommendations from the Commission that actually would have made things better concerns this issue. An earlier Commission document put it this way:
[P]ersons who provide direct confidential services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking should be excluded from mandated reporting responsibility. The reasoning behind the proposed exclusion is to reduce the barriers, or perceived barriers, in the way of persons who may be seeking immediate physical safety. Persons who seek physical safety are likely to be seeking to improve the safety situation for their children.
Jane Doe, Inc., and others who testified said this did not go nearly far enough – because battered women are likely to come into contact with so many other mandated reporters.
As Jane Doe’s written testimony explains:
We appreciate the consideration of excluding sexual and domestic violence advocates from mandatory reporting requirements and recognize that this exclusion was considered to address the need to maintain relationships between these providers and survivors in their communities. However, these exemptions will not suffice.
Jane Doe did not say this was a reason to do nothing; rather the group said it was a reason to do far more.
During Commission deliberations, Mossaides and her allies made clear they opposed any exemption for any mandated reporter when a battered mother comes to that mandated reporter seeking help. So now, behold how what can best be called the Mossaides Touch stands the argument from Jane Doe, Inc. and others on its head – weaponizing it against the children of domestic violence victims. According to the final report:
The Commission members expressed some opposing viewpoints on this proposal and Commission discussion ended by discussing that it is unlikely that such an exclusion would have the desired effect as victims of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking come into contact with many other mandated reporters besides those providing direct confidential services.
It's not clear when the Commission as a whole reached any such conclusion. (We never heard search a consensus, though we missed one meeting following the hearings.) But since the testimony at the hearing urged the commission to do more, not less, this sounds more like Mossaides misinterpreting the intent of public hearing speakers to her advantage.
Mossaides tops it off with a version of the Big Lie:
Further, children who are involved in these situations in some manner can be victims of child abuse or neglect and it is too dangerous to exclude the reporting of these children.
This is falsely presented as the view of the Commission, as opposed to some commission members; again, the Commission as a whole never voted on this.
The sentence also mischaracterizes the proposal. It would not have excluded the reporting of these children if a professional in her or his professional judgment thought it would be necessary – it would have simply not forced some of those professionals to report when they felt reporting would harm the children. Given everything we know about what taking children from battered mothers does to children, it is too dangerous not to exclude the reporting of these children.
And now, we go page-by-page from the beginning. This discussion does not include all the misrepresentations in the report, it merely touches on the highlights. (Throughout this section excerpts from the Mossaides Report are presented in italics.)
Page11: The feds made me do it.
The report implies that Massachusetts had better not touch mandated reporting as a concept or it will lose vast amounts of federal money. This is a variation on a blatantly false statement Mossaides made during a commission meeting.
Mandated reporting is required under a federal law, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. During a commission meeting, Mossaides falsely claimed that failure to comply with CAPTA would cost the state $400 million per year. The actual number is more like, at most, $1.5 million. We are not aware of Mossaides ever apologizing for this error.
Though the commission report does not use an actual number, Mossaides appears intent on perpetuating the misimpression. According to the report “Federal funding of child protective services is conditioned on each state’s compliance with CAPTA.” That leaves an impression that vast amounts are at stake. But the federal government doesn’t do much funding of child protective services through CAPTA – again, in Massachusetts, it’s probably $1.5 million worth. So Massachusetts actually would save money and, more important, save more children, by abolishing mandatory reporting, thereby reducing the time wasted pursuing vast numbers of false reports.
Page11: A copout concerning trauma
The report declares that
Commission members have discussed that the trauma of abuse and neglect is difficult to disentangle from the trauma of the experience with child protective services when evaluating the effect of child protective services …
That’s just a new twist on a longstanding copout by those favoring massive surveillance of and forced intervention into families. Whatever the rotten outcomes of family police involvement, it is said, it’s probably really those rotten parents’ fault.
But it’s actually not that hard to disentangle the source of the harm. You can read all about how it was done in all those studies alluded to earlier documenting that even when the “maltreatment” is the same, children in typical cases typically fare better when left in their own homes.
Page12: Distorting what DCF actually does.
A section concerning the reluctance of some mandated reporters to report begins with a version of the Big Lie:
Mandated reporters may be particularly reticent to damage their relationships and potentially cut off an avenue for support if they perceive that child protective services will not adequately address dangerous situations. This reticence can leave children without the protection they need to ensure their safety.
This assumes that the caseworker who will be sent out if a report is called in and screened in will be a better judge of what is needed to keep children safe than a professional who already has a good relationship with a family and already may be supporting that family. On the contrary, the betrayal of trust required by mandated reporting laws may well drive the family away from ever seeking help in the future, putting the children at greater risk.
This paragraph goes on to soft-peddle what DCF workers do. While acknowledging that yes, they do investigate, first the report portrays them as well-trained kindly helpers:
Child protective specialists are trained to know the supports available to children and families and to connect families to resources like early intervention services, supplemental nutrition assistance (SNAP) benefits, housing assistance and so on.
And yet we know that poverty routinely is confused with neglect. Most DCF workers have the best of intentions, some even fit the saintly description presented by the Commission. But first and foremost, as that description from The New Yorker makes so clear, they are a police force. Had there been even one actual parent who’d endured a DCF investigation on the commission, or one actual current or former foster youth, perhaps this sugarcoating of what DCF workers do would not have made it into the report.
Page 13: The deck-stacking begins in earnest.
After a tepid summary of concerns about mandated reporting, written to be as general and dry as possible we get this:
Some members of the Commission have stressed the stark reality of child abuse and neglect which has a profound effect on children and families.
Some members? We never heard any member of the commission deny that reality, rather the differences were over what is the best way to do something about it. What Mossaides really is saying is: If you disagree with me and my allies, you don’t understand how bad child abuse is and you’re out to minimize it. This is the sort of framing Angela Brooks and other commissioners objected to when Mossaides tried to suggest it in her preamble to the report. It is a not-so-subtle insult directed toward some of her fellow commissioners.
Lest there be any doubt about which commissioners Mossaides thinks really count and which do not, consider the very next sentence:
Some Commission members have responsibilities that include reviewing 51A reports [the Massachusetts term for a child abuse or neglect report] or DCF responses to 51A reports … and have a basis of personal knowledge that focuses and informs their positions and viewpoints.
You get the message, right? The members who are from DCF, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and of course Mossaides herself, are the real experts here. In effect, Mossaides is saying: We’ve seen the horrors so we know that any effort to curb mandatory reporting will leave children in danger. The rest of you should just shut up and leave it to us!
In fact, the personal experience of Mossaides and representatives from DCF does not inform their perspective, it biases it. Precisely because they spend a disproportionate amount of time on the most egregious cases – that’s the Child Advocate’s job – they are not so much informed by their personal experience as they are tyrannized by it. They are unable to grasp that such horror stories are not the norm, and unable to understand the personal experiences of hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts children traumatized by needless investigations or worse.
Compounding the problem, such children and their families were locked out of the process – none was represented on the commission. They, too, have “personal knowledge that focuses and informs their positions and viewpoints,” but the Legislature chose to leave them off the Commission and Mossaides did everything possible to shut them out until the last minute.
The report continues:
Some discussion has focused on recognizing that mandated reporting is an imperfect system as it relies on a wide range of people who all inevitably carry their own implicit biases, complexities, and faults.
Whenever a “child welfare” agency refers to a system that disrupts the lives of more than half of all Black children, and consigns hundreds of thousands nationwide needlessly to the horrors of foster care every year as merely “imperfect” – you know they are deep in denial. And that is followed immediately by this:
However, some Commission members have expressed that such imperfections do not outweigh the critical need to protect the safety of children. [Emphasis added.]
And there it is, folks: – the Big Lie. The system is merely “imperfect.” If you curb it in any way, you supposedly jeopardize child protection. This is almost exactly the false framing to which dissenting commissioners objected.
The Commission generally agreed that mandated reporter requirements are an important component of our child protective system.
Actually, there was never a vote on that. In fact, after decades of health terrorism and a year of propaganda from Mossaides it would be understandable if even dissenting commissioners weren’t ready to abolish mandatory reporting.
But the refusal to vote on anything makes clear that they are not ready to endorse it either. And so does the quote that begins this analysis from one of the dissenters, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, who states explicitly that she used to think mandated reporter requirements “are an important component of our child protective system,” but now she’s not so sure:
I spent a lot of years thinking that [mandated reporting] gets us to a better place; I’m disheartened to hear maybe it really doesn’t – and even if it does, perception is reality. A lot of well-credentialed, well-meaning experts think this doesn’t work. … I was taken aback to hear so much of that conversation.
The title of this analysis is taken from what Ryan said next. She said finding out if the critics are right “should be Job One.”
The commission never had time to do that. But claiming unanimous support for mandated reporting goes beyond anything the commissioners said.
Then comes a remarkable insight into the white, middle-class rescue fantasies that actually have driven much of what we call “child protection,” including mandated reporting. The Mossaides Report lifts a quote from a 2008 article seeking to justify mandated reporting and claims the article is a good summary of “some Commission member’s [sic] views.” Here’s the quote:
A just society must include measures to address the vulnerability of children to abuse and neglect...
No, that much is the view of all Commissioners – once again we see an attempt to push the Big Lie. The quote continues:
An approach informed by psychological jurisprudence would surely conclude it is more realistic to expect abused and neglected children’s experience to come to light with mandated reporting than without it.
But as we’ve seen, an approach based on actual research into how mandated reporting works shows that’s not true.
To understand why, consider what was learned from firefighting, in particular from these boxes:
In the years before cellphones, almost every big-city block had on it a red box with a lever one could pull to call the fire department. There was no intercom, you just pulled the lever and the trucks would come. But eventually many cities took them out because all the false alarms were causing the firefighters to get to real fires too late.
Similarly, when DCF workers are flooded with false alarms, they will get to the cases where they’re really needed too late, or not at all, or they won’t have time to do an investigation thorough enough to know if they are needed.
So no, it actually is not more realistic to expect more cases of children in real danger to come to light “with mandated reporting than without it.”
But the next sentence is where we see the whole rescue fantasy mentality play out:
Engaging with children’s subjective experience might suggest that, if given a say, those who are abused would prefer to be assisted than not.
That’s true, for those who actually are abused and those for whom a report leads to assistance.
But what would we find if we engaged with the “subjective experience” of the vastly larger number of children needlessly traumatized and stripsearched – which is, in fact, a huge proportion of Black children in America? Would they be glad a “mandated reporter” turned in their parents?
The article continues:
Mandated reporting better protects children’s interests of dignity and egalitarian treatment, and enhances parents’ interests if effective responses occur.
Really? Would the children be saying: “Thank you – it was great to have my dignity protected when that stranger from DCF stripsearched me looking for the bruises my parents never inflicted.”?
What about the children taken from homes that were safe or could be made safe and then moved from foster home to foster home, group home to group home, emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone? Would they say: “Wow, I’m sure glad there’s a law that forced my guidance counselor to report my parents even though she didn’t even really think there was a problem!”?
And when these children looked around and noticed how few white kids had been treated that way, would they say: “I really appreciate the way you defended my ‘egalitarian treatment’”?
Had such young people been on the Commission, the commissioners might have learned a lot. But, of course, they were not.
Pages 14-16: “Selected excerpts of national data…”
The key word there is “selected.” Both in terms of what was selected and what was left out, the data are presented in a way that misinforms about the true scope of child abuse and neglect and promotes racial stereotypes.
The selected excerpts include the claim that, nationwide, 678,000 children were victims of child abuse and neglect in 2018. But we really don’t know that.
Although, unfortunately, that phrasing is used in the underlying report, the 678,000 figure applies to the number of children for whom caseworkers checked a box on a form expressing their opinion that it was at least slightly more likely than not that there was abuse or “neglect.” As noted earlier, the only study we know of to examine these guesses suggests workers are far more likely to wrongly “substantiate” an allegation than to wrongly label one unfounded, so this estimate is high.
The phrasing also lumps together everything from killing a child to, say, leaving a child home alone to run an emergency errand.
It also omits the fact that the 678,000 figure is out of 7.8 million children who were subjects of calls to child abuse hotlines. In other words, out of every 100 calls to these hotlines 91* are either so absurd they’re screened out or they’re found to be false. Most of the rest are “neglect.” So a complete set of numbers would look like this:
A complete set of numbers would show that workers for Massachusetts DCF and their counterparts spend a mind-boggling amount of their time spinning their wheels and traumatizing families – for nothing. Mandatory reporting is a key reason for the explosion in false reports.
The Mossaides Commission’s selected excerpts from a federal report go on to ratchet up the racial bias with this claim, quoted from the report verbatim, but without additional context:
American Indian or Alaska Native children have the highest rate of victimization at 15.2 per 1,000 children in the population of the same race or ethnicity; and African American children have the second highest rate at 14.0 per 1,000 children of the same race or ethnicity.
In other words: See? There’s no racism in child welfare – nonwhite parents are just worse people!
In fact, given the wealth of research showing that racism infects every decision point in child welfare from who is called into the hotline, to which calls are screened in, to which cases are substantiated to which children are torn from their homes to which children are never returned, these figures are at least as much measures of poverty and racism as they are measures of actual child abuse.
Page 19: Welcome to Disney World.
On this page, Mossaides gives us the Disney version of how DCF responds to child abuse reports.
At the end of Fiscal Year 2020 approximately 24,473 families across the state were being served by DCF ...
Served??? A lot of families would say a better term is “surveilled” – and plenty of children forced needlessly in foster care would say they were being abused by DCF. We would not expect the report to say that. But an intellectually honest report would have used neutral language instead of suggesting that all of these families were joyfully responding to the agency’s beneficence.
The report continues:
Approximately 80% of these families were being served by DCF with the children remaining in their home. In these situations, DCF … worked with the family to address the situation and ensure the safety of the children with their families.
Working with the family implies a partnership. What really happens is DCF issues a “service plan” which is just a set of hoops families must jump through. These cookie-cutter plans are heavy on “counseling” and “parent education” while often ignoring the need for concrete help to deal with poverty. And there is no partnership. DCF says jump. You either say “how high” or your children are taken away.
Again from the report:
In approximately 20% of the cases children needed to be removed from their families to ensure their safety.
Always? DCF never got it wrong and took away a child needlessly? Wow! I guess that statement about the system being “imperfect” was too modest. DCF is the world’s first perfect family policing agency! (Of course, this phrasing may have something to do with eh fact that Mossaides’ allies from DCF probably had a lot to do with writing it.)
In those situations, care and protection cases were brought in Juvenile Court and families, children, and DCF had legal representation to affect the custody status and outcome of the DCF involvement with the family.
This is Mossaides’ attempt to suggest that families get due process and children can’t possibly be wrongfully removed because, after all, everyone gets a lawyer. Technically families get legal representation – but often that is just a grossly overloaded underprepared lawyer who may have just met the client five minutes before the first court hearing. That kind of representation can’t “affect” much of anything. There is more about this particular canard, how the deck is stacked against families in almost every possible way and what should be done about it, here.
Page 20: Return of The Big Lie
According to the report:
Having a safety net of individuals who are obligated to report suspected child maltreatment to DCF is necessary because children, by the very nature of being children, have a diminished ability to care for themselves, protect themselves, recognize when they are being maltreated, and advocate for their own safety. [Emphasis added.]
Having a system to enable reports is necessary, just as it’s a good idea to be able to call 911 to report a crime. But there is no evidence that a system that forces people to report, even when it’s contrary to their own professional judgment, drives families away from seeking help, and drowns the system in false alarms is necessary – and considerable evidence that it makes things worse.
And now, watch as Mossaides tries to return us to the days of health terrorism:
The difficult reality is that children are at the mercy of adults whether they are the child’s parents, relatives, babysitters, camp counselors, or coaches.
Notice how “at the mercy” conjures up images of beatings and torture. The “difficult reality” for Mossaides, the one she won’t face, is that the overwhelming majority of parents love their children and do the very best they can for them – often in spite of oppressive systems such as the family police.
Now, back to the Disney version:
The mandated reporter system is intended to be a system of adults who can identify harm and risk of harm and take measured and appropriate action.
Whether that is the intent or not, that is not how it functions. And more than half a century of experience with this system teaches us that a system that coerces everyone it touches, from the person filing the report to the family that is subjected to that report, cannot be made to function that way.
The Commission heard arguments during the public comment period that Massachusetts should eliminate the mandated reporter system or heavily curtail its scope. The Commission’s work before, during, and after the public comment period has focused on discussions designed to improve the mandated reporter system by clarifying why someone is a mandated reporter and linking that reasoning to the duties of the mandated reporter to act.
Translation: Even though some Commission members clearly had second thoughts after the public hearing, including one who said finding out if criticism of the system is valid “should be Job One,” Mossaides and her allies decided to ignore it, and pursue only what they wanted from day one: A bigger child welfare surveillance state.
If defenders of this willful blindness claim that they couldn’t look at the underlying issues because that wasn’t called for in the statute creating the commission, look more closely. As we said at the outset: The Legislature instructed the Commission to “review and report on existing mandated reporter laws and regulations and make recommendations on how to improve the response to, and prevention of, child abuse and neglect.” Thus, had the commission concluded that the best way to prevent child abuse and neglect is to curb or even eliminate mandatory reporting it was free to recommend that they do so.
Even were that not permitted in the statute and the Commission decided to do it anyway, why would that be a problem? It’s an advisory commission. What is the Legislature going to do if it gets unexpected advice, throw them in jail?
Page 22: A copout about the Commission’s own lack of diversity.
According to the report:
Some Commission members felt that the work of the Commission was made harder because it lacked the consistent input and voices of impacted communities
Actually, it lacked such input almost entirely, until they were almost done and finally held public hearings.
And some Commission members felt that it is difficult for any individual to represent the complexity and experience of any community.
This time, “some commission members” means Mossaides, who repeatedly made this bizarre comment when confronted with the utter lack of life experience diversity on her commission. What she is saying is: Since one individual can’t represent an entire community it’s just fine that we had none from that community.
The Commission therefore uses the opportunity of this report to propose further data gathering that can help to inform these critical discussions.
Actually, the Commission did not propose this – the report specifies over and over that the Commission as a whole proposes – nothing. But Mossaides certainly proposed it, because Mossaides wants to be in charge of the data gathering.
Page 25. The report makes a good point, but fails to apply it.
In 18 states everyone is a mandated reporter. Although again, nothing was voted on, there was consensus among the Commissioners that this was not a bad idea. Among the reasons, according to the report:
A history of multiple 51A reports, whether they are screened-in or screened-out, may elevate the concern of the DCF screener taking the reports, tipping the scales to screen-in a report that may otherwise be screened-out. This is because multiple reports that allege the same or similar concerns can cause a DCF screener to question whether a prior decision to screen-out a report was well-reasoned. … This approach can exacerbate the effects of biased reporting for those who fall victim to multiple bias-based reports.
Good point. But, as the report goes on to acknowledge, that’s
already a problem. The report says it will be even worse if all those amateurs who don’t have direct experience with children are made mandatory reporters, because they supposedly are more biased than “professionals” who deal with children regularly. But later in the Mossaides Report there is a discussion of a wide range of additional individuals, such as volunteers and pharmacists, who, the report strongly implies, should be included as mandated reporters, even though their professional experience with children may range from limited to none.
So in fact, the statement on page 25 is an excellent argument for curbing mandatory reporting.
Page 32: Ignoring harm to children.
In a section summarizing, and minimizing, some of the concerns raised by speakers at the public hearings, the report notes that they discussed “the affect [sic] mandated reporting has on victims of domestic violence.” The implication is that only the adults are hurt. In fact, as noted earlier, those who suffer most when parents, almost always mothers, are deemed neglectful because they “allowed” their children to “witness domestic violence” are the children.
Page 37: The Big Lie – again!
According to the report:
Intrusion into familial life and possible separation of children from their families because of allegations of abuse or neglect can result in serious harm to children and their families and that serious harm must be weighed by the need to adequately protect children from abuse and neglect - a calculation that is extraordinarily complex.
It would be complex – if mandatory reporting worked. But since it doesn’t, the calculation is simpler: Eliminate mandatory reporting and workers will damage fewer families needlessly and have more time to find those in real danger. It will both curb the harm of intrusion and better protect children from abuse and neglect.
Pages 50-57: Expanding definitions in the guise of “clarification”
The subheading for this section reads “Definitions to clarify reporting responsibility.” This, and almost everything that follows, is misleading. Over and over again what Mossaides and her allies seek to pass off as mere “clarifications” are, in fact, dramatic expansions of definitions of abuse and neglect that would have to be reported.
For example, Mossaides and her allies wanted to require mandated reporters not only to report anything that fits broad, vague definitions of abuse and neglect in state regulations, but any child who would be “at risk” of what these regulations define as “abuse” or “neglect.” The supposed reasoning: DCF already is allowed to accept such allegations and investigate them, so this is just a clarification.
Burt the fact that DCF can investigate any child reported to be “at risk” of “neglect” is not the same thing as forcing mandated reporters to make a report in any such circumstance. In an Orwellian twist, the report describes this expansion of what must be reported as merely a way “to provide more guidance [to] reduce the number of unnecessary reports to DCF,” Right. Because nothing reduces false reports like expanding the definition of what must be reported.
The most egregiously misleading example concerns a proposal to add a statutory definition of abuse and neglect specifically to guide mandated reporters – since currently, detailed definitions exist only in regulations. The Mossaides Report passes this off as merely another clarification.
It is anything but. The current definition of neglect in regulation defines neglect as failure or refusal to provide “minimally adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision, emotional stability and growth, or other essential care to ensure a child’s safety. But it includes an explicit exception if the failure is “due solely to inadequate economic resources or solely to the existence of a handicapping condition.”
Guess which part Mossaides and her allies want to take out? Yes, that’s right. Although the obscene rate at which children are torn from their families in Massachusetts is a testament to the fact that this clause already is routinely ignored, Mossaides doesn’t think that’s enough.
Mossaides and her allies want a statutory definition of neglect that eliminates the exception and requires people to report a child as neglected if they lack minimally adequate food, clothing, or shelter no matter what the reason.
And, as CommonWealth Magazine makes clear, this was not intended as a mere clarification, it was intended to bring more families under DCF surveillance.
Page 52: The Commission’s drug problem.
Under current Massachusetts law, mandated reporters must report any newborn who suffers “physical or emotional injury” due to “physical dependence upon an addictive drug at birth.” The Mossaides Report acknowledges this is currently interpreted as reporting any instance in which an infant is born with drugs in her or his system, regardless of whether there is “physical or emotional injury.”
What this really does is terrify mothers away from seeking prenatal care and away from giving birth in hospitals. Or it may scare them into quitting legally prescribed drugs used to treat addiction – which, as the report puts it, can put both the mothers and the newborns “at significant risk.”
Legislation has been introduced in Massachusetts to simply eliminate this requirement and instead notify DCF of the number of such births, without any identification, in order to meet certain requirements in CAPTA. Health care providers would remain free to also file a child abuse report if, in their professional judgment, they felt it was necessary to protect the infant and outweighed the inherent harm of such reporting. But they would not be forced to report every such case.
But Mossaides felt even this tiny change went too far. Instead, her report discusses a much more limited exception, in which medical professionals could exercise such discretion only if they were absolutely, positively sure not reporting to DCF won’t put the infant “at risk” – and only if the drug in question were legal and, where a prescription is necessary, legally prescribed.
Note though that current Massachusetts law does not require a report if a mandated reporter thinks an infant is “at risk” – only if there is actual harm. Thus, Mossaides seeks to make mandatory reporting requirements broader in the name of narrowing them.
None of this should come as any surprise given that Massachusetts DCF clearly views any use of drugs – by poor people and nonwhite people –as a moral failing that demands their intervention. This can be seen by the fit DCF threw over the referendum that legalized marijuana in Massachusetts. The referendum language that so upset DCF said simply that the agency must have actual evidence that marijuana use by parents places their children at risk before taking those children away, putting the family under supervision or otherwise interfering with their lives.
The Mossaides report also falsely claims that because the wording of Massachusetts law is “closely tied” to federal requirements under CAPTA, the issue “is not easily resolved.”
For starters, Massachusetts law goes beyond anything required by CAPTA. The proposed legislation discussed above does, in fact, easily resolve CAPTA concerns. And, as noted above, not abiding by CAPTA would cost the state no more than about $1.5 million per year – less money than it almost certainly would save by not throwing so many families under needless surveillance.
Page 63: Training will fix it.
No, it won’t.
Among the most depressing and certainly the most predictable sections of the Mossaides report is the claim that, in effect, if we just give mandatory reporters enough “training” we no longer need to worry about all those false reports leading to the destruction of families. As I said, it was the most predictable, which is why NCCPR addressed it in our own testimony to the Commission:
Imagine if a special commission were convened to study police brutality in Massachusetts. Imagine if they said that all the problems could be solved if we just gave the police more training. Imagine if they claimed the problem isn’t, say, massive use of stop-and-frisk policing; we just need to give the police more training in whom to stop and how to frisk them. People would immediately recognize it for what it was: a whitewash – in every sense of the term.
Yet over and over and over we hear that all the problems of the child welfare surveillance state will be solved, all that wrongful removal of children will end through the magic of “more training.” Similarly, we are told that the problems of mandatory reporting will be solved if we just give the mandated reporters more training. But training is no substitute for due process.
And that’s even if you could do it. Since vast numbers of state residents are mandatory reporters, there’s no way you can provide more than a few hours of training, probably online. And who will design the training? The same people whose mantra is report anything and everything – so more training might actually make things worse. That is certainly the case in another state, where I took one of the officially authorized training courses for mandatory reporters.
We’ll stop here to note that, sure enough, the section on training includes the claim that it should be used to help mandated reporters overcome “fundamental reasons that mandated reporters fail to report.” But often, those are in fact good, sound reasons. Now, back to the testimony:
There also is a peculiar double standard concerning training. In many cases, mandated reporters have vastly more training than DCF caseworkers. When a parent has a substance use issue, why are well-trained medical professionals denied the opportunity to use their training and their professional judgment concerning whether the substance use is endangering a child and whether DCF intervention would help? Instead, they are forced to turn the judgment over to caseworkers who may be far less qualified.
In the report, Mossaides says she has “reached out to a member of the team that designed Pennsylvania’s evidence-based system in that state …”
Actually, there is more than one such course in Pennsylvania. We’ve taken two of them. One is horrible, the other is less horrible.
Mossaides is referring to the less horrible course, called “iLookOut for Child Abuse” created by Penn State Prof. Benjamin Levi.
But that training course has several flaws:
● Though it explores situations where there is not reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect it never explains why reporting anyway could be harmful. The harm of failure to report is discussed extensively, the harm of making a mistaken report is not discussed at all.
● There is no discussion at all of racial bias.
● The course says mandated reporters should report based on no more than a “nagging feeling” – an open invitation to report based on racial and class biases.
● In some cases, a video at the center of the course and an accompanying quiz seem to contradict each other. The case that dominates the video involves a situation in which a child witnesses domestic violence. In the video, a report is not made until there are additional factors. But the accompanying quiz demands reporting based solely on finding out that a child witnessed domestic violence. As was discussed earlier intruding on a family with a DCF investigation on these grounds can be enormously harmful to children. But clearly, it is supported by Mossaides. Perhaps that’s why she likes this course so much.
Pages 66 and 70: A final bit of false equivalence
There is a risk in oversimplifying problems. But there also is a risk in overcomplicating problems.
The great filmmaker Costa Gavras, known for making “political films” such as Z and The Confession, once said:
The issues in politics are not complex, even though politicians tell us so in order to convince us of the politicians’ importance … and to keep us from criticizing them.
And so, Mossaides’ report declares that
Commission members struggled to untangle the complex interplay of neglect and poverty. The Commission, recognizing the extraordinary complexity these issues strongly recommends [more research.]
And guess who’s volunteering to oversee the research!
By “research” what Mossaides means is a subjective review in which the researchers – overseen by Mossaides – will decree if it was really poverty (or, as defenders of the status quo love to put it “poverty alone.” Indeed, she has been explicit about this during Commission meetings.
She has suggested that her office do a “qualitative review” of cases to see if people are really calling in reports alleging child abuse “just” because of poverty or because of “poverty alone.” Similarly, Massachusetts regulations say it’s not neglect if the problem is “solely to inadequate economic resources.” [Emphasis added.]
The thing about poverty is, it tends to have company. Poverty breeds other problems. So all someone like Mossaides needs to do is say: “See? In that case we sampled there was some other problem as well – so it wasn’t a poverty case!” Then the study she commissions and she oversees concludes that DCF doesn’t take children because of poverty “alone.”
But the issue isn’t whether poverty is alone – the issue is whether the
solution is money. So, let’s say poverty causes stress that leads to depression. You could say: See! We didn’t report the family because of poverty we reported the family because of depression!
But if poverty caused the depression, odds are money will cure it. And if it doesn’t quite do the job, money can also buy whatever therapy this parent might need – just as it does for “depressed” parents in Weston or Wellesley or Longmeadow.
Study after study after study has found that small amounts of cash are all it takes to reduce what agencies like DCF call “neglect.” So if the solution is money, then it’s a poverty case whether the poverty is “alone” or not. Such cases should not be called in to DCF, they should not be investigated by DCF and children in such cases should not be taken away by DCF.
All that said, a qualitative study still would be a good idea -- under three conditions:
● The terms of reference are broader: The question in each case should be: Could this have been handled without calling in an agency that has the power to take children away and otherwise coerce families?
● The people doing the study represent not just racial and ethnic diversity but viewpoint diversity – as happened in 2005 when New Jersey’s then-Child Advocate, Kevin Ryan commissioned such a study.
● Maria Mossaides and the Office of Child Advocate are not allowed anywhere near it.
Page 9: The report’s big joke.
I said at the outset that there are two words in the report that will prompt laughter – often bitter laughter – across the length and breadth of Massachusetts. It’s that place on page 9 where Mossaides refers to herself and the office she runs as a “neutral convener.”
Now it’s up to the Legislature
The Massachusetts Legislature created the Commission and now the Legislature has to decide what to make of the final report. Unfortunately, most legislators right now are where the dissenting commissioners were before the public hearing – finding it incomprehensible that expanding mandatory reporting is even controversial, much less that it should be curbed or abolished. In addition to skewing the final report, Mossaides has bragged about her regular meetings with key lawmakers – so she’s had months and months to spin all this without the rest of us even knowing what she’s been saying.
So there’s a lot to overcome for those of us who are the real advocates for child safety – because we respect the research that shows mandatory reporting undermines child safety.
Maria Mossaides and her allies prevented the Commission from doing what one of its own members, Marian Ryan, said should have been “Job One” – taking an in-depth, open-minded look into whether all those scholars, advocates and people with lived experience, and all those researchers who have questioned mandatory reporting for decades, are right.
The Legislature needs to do that job.
*-Elsewhere this analysis refers to 83 percent of reports being false. That lower figure applies to reports actually investigated. The 91 percent figure combines reports deemed false after investigation with reports screened out before investigation