Texas Tries To Rein in False Accusations of Child Abuse
The state legislature passed a law to limit anonymous reports to its child abuse hotline.
A bill designed to limit false accusations of child abuse is now heading to Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's desk—one of several attempts to reform the state's Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).
The bill was introduced last November by Texas state Rep. Valoree Swanson (R–Spring). The bill—which has largely gained support along partisan lines—will ban anonymous reports to the state's child abuse hotline—instead requiring all callers to provide their name, phone number, and address. The bill also requires reporters of abuse to include "the facts that caused the individual to believe the child has been abused or neglected and the source of the information."
While anonymous reports of abuse and neglect to the state's hotline are prohibited under the legislation, the identity of those reporting abuse will remain confidential, except to DFPS and law enforcement officials. These measures, according to the bill's supporters, are specifically designed to limit false accusations of child abuse.
"As Texans, we need to ensure the safety of our children in any situation. HB 63 will allow for more accountability and protections for those involved in potential CPS and DFPS investigations relating to neglect and abuse," state Rep. Kevin Sparks (R–Midland) told The Texan."Without this necessary reform, both agencies will struggle to verify reports and can complicate the issue with hours of wasted time on false accusations."
Opponents have argued that the bill would deter reports of actual child abuse. Kate Murphy, director of child protection policy with the nonpartisan nonprofit Texans Care for Children, told the Texas Tribune that, in 2022, about 1,000 reports of the 12,473 total anonymous calls were found to be substantiated.
"Unfortunately, if this bill were to pass, those 1,000 children would be left to continue experiencing abuse and neglect or worse," said Murphy.
But there's little reason to think that the bill will prevent factual reports of child abuse or neglect from being made. Not only is it a fairly large leap to assume that genuine abuse will go unreported if callers have to give their name and contact information, but the bill still allows individuals to make anonymous reports to 911 or any other local or state law enforcement agency. If these reports are referred to DFPS, the agency is directed to undertake a preliminary investigation to determine whether there is any corroborating evidence for the claims, which can include home visits and interviews—hardly an abdication of responsibility.
Raising the bar for making an allegation of child abuse or neglect is probably a good thing. Child protective services agencies sometimes investigate parents who have simply let their children walk home from school by themselves or allowed them to play outside unsupervised. In 2019, only 16 percent of investigations uncovered a substantiated incident of abuse or neglect.
That said, intervention is obviously justified in cases of genuine abuse, but there's little reason to think requiring that reporters identify themselves to a child protection hotline will prevent real abuse from going unreported.
HB 63 is one of several recent efforts to reform the way Texas investigates reports of child abuse and neglect. HB 730—which is also headed to Abbot's desk and would require DFPS workers to notify parents of their rights, including the right to refuse searches, drug tests, or interviews with children—will strengthen the rights of parents subject to a DFPS investigation. If officials want to conduct a search anyway, they'd have to show probable cause to obtain a court order.
"Unfortunately, the DFPS and Child Protective Services can often be used as a weapon. A lot of times we see this in divorce cases," Sparks told the Tribune. "We probably all know of a circumstance where a family was needlessly traumatized because of an anonymous tip that was ultimately found to be false."