Last fall, Mary Cobb and her husband spent the afternoon at the lake with their five-year-old son who struggles with autism and is often prone to meltdowns, self-injurious behavior, and violent outbursts. On that day, however, he had dressed himself (in one-size-too-small pants), let his dad help him put his coat on, and had enjoyed throwing rocks into the water without a single meltdown. It had been what Mary called a “miracle day.” However, the day quickly went downhill when their family was approached by two police officers.
The officers stated that someone had called 911 and reported them because the reporter believed that the condition of the son’s tangled hair and too-short pants indicated that his parents “weren’t taking good care of him.” Mrs. Cobb quickly explained that it is difficult to brush and cut their son’s hair because of severe sensory issues caused by his autism.
While the officers were understanding and soon left, Mrs. Cobb still worries about what will happen if her son has a meltdown in public — something that occurs on a daily basis at home. As a parent of a child with special needs, she is vigilant about caring for her son. However, despite all of her care for her son, it only took a report from one anonymous person to lead police officers to immediately suspect her of neglecting him.
It is easy to blame just the government for intrusions into parental rights, but nearly every CPS case is initiated by a report that comes from outside CPS. As the Cobbs’ story illustrates, some of those reports are unfounded. In fact, their story is far from just an isolated incident–it is the norm. Out of over 4 million reports of child abuse and neglect made every year in the U.S., over 80% are false or unfounded. ¹
Our experience certainly bears out that statistic. We have handled numerous unfounded cases which could have been avoided if the person who made the report had just talked with the parents first and learned more about the situation.
Of course, there may be situations in which it would put someone at serious risk of real physical danger to approach or question the parent of a child. There may also be situations where the facts are abundantly clear and someone may have a duty to report.
For all other situations, if someone has concerns regarding someone else’s child, we generally suggest attempting to first raise those concerns with the child’s parents before making a report.
The phrase “see something, say something” is frequently used to encourage people to report, but many times the first call made to “say something” should be to the parents, not CPS.
¹ Administration for Children & Families. “Child Maltreatment 2016.” Children’s Bureau. February 1, 2018. Accessed March 28, 2018. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2016.pdf.
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