Imagine this situation: a stepfather sexually assaults a 5 year old girl. The mother has suffered from him for years and when she finds out that he is abusing her daughter, she decides to report the child abuse to the hotline. Do you think the mother will feel safe giving her name? Will she be afraid? Will she be safe during the investigation, or will she be afraid that he will retaliate against her, escalating the abuse?
Picture 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 abuse. You know you need to report the suspected abuse, but you prefer not to give your name for fear of threats to yourself or your family. You decide to give your name because you know the investigator may have other questions, but you now know that your name may be discovered under a change in law.
What about the following situation? You find out that your brother is sexually assaulting his 4 year old daughter, your niece. Would it be easier to report if you could do so anonymously?
It is difficult for anyone who has had to make this call to report a suspected child abuse. This is not a call taken lightly. Removing the anonymity protection would make it more difficult and may cause some not to report at all. We cannot afford, our children cannot afford, more barriers to reporting abuse.
In the last legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers pushed to end anonymous reports of child abuse and neglect. This bill, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling, would be detrimental to child victims of abuse and would have a deterrent effect on callers who might fear retaliation if their identity is revealed. Supporters of the bill say anonymous reporting allows the risk of false reporting of allegations of child abuse. There are already protections against false reports.
When a child abuse report is submitted, the next step is to investigate whether there is sufficient evidence of the abuse. The report only triggers an investigation, it does not lead to the arrest of the alleged perpetrator. Investigators are trained and know how to find out which reports are valid. It is only when there is sufficient evidence of child abuse or neglect that the next steps in the investigative process take place. Child welfare service agencies investigate about 55% of incidents of child sexual abuse reported to them. The rest are “eliminated” for lack of adequate information or for other reasons. Among these reports examined, only a part meets the criteria of “confirmed”, according to the data provided by Darkness to Light. These facts show that even in the event 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 proof of child abuse committed, the investigation is closed.
Even with the ability to report anonymously, most child abuse goes unreported. Eliminating the anonymous reporting option would result in even fewer reporting. Only about a third of incidents of child sexual abuse are identified, and even fewer are reported. Studies show that only 38% of child victims report having been sexually abused. Of those, 40% tell a close friend, rather than an adult or authority, and these “friend-to-friend” disclosures often go unreported, according to Darkness to Light. These figures reveal that the vast majority of incidents of child sexual abuse go unreported to authorities.
Tennessee is a mandated reporter state, which means anyone suspected 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 this trick within 48 hours. DCS will work with law enforcement to determine if there is any evidence of abuse. Reporting abuse is vital as it is extremely rare for the abuse to be reported directly by the child to law enforcement, or by the child to DCS.
The people who report child abuse are the ones who make a huge and positive difference in the lives of children. They are often the ones who help stop the abuse and help children begin their healing.
It is not known if this bill will reappear in the next legislative session, but children’s advocates across the state are paying close attention to it. The bill was the subject of a summer study session earlier this year, but its future 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 preventing child abuse, follow Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center on social media and visit coffeecountycac.org.
Joyce Prusak is Executive Director of the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center.