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Decision to screen In and investigate in child sexual abuse

Decision to screen In and investigate in child sexual abuse When a report is made to child protective services, the report is either screened in or out, but only those cases that are screened in are investigated. Child protective services cannot screen in and investigate all reported cases—nor should they. What is important to consider, however, is why cases are screened in or out. In the latest NCANDS incidence study done in 1998, a third of all reports of suspected abuse or neglect were screened out (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000c). This is a higher estimate than even the NIS-3 done in 1993, in which only 42% to 44% of cases of suspected abuse or neglect known to professionals were investigated (and thus screened in) (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996). Neither study attempts to explain this discrepancy. Sexual abuse cases are more likely to be screened in and thus investigated (Karski, 1999; Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996). Screening policies also vary across agencies (Downing, Wells, & Fluke, 1990) and are used at least partially “to reduce investigative caseloads to a point that at least approaches, if not matches, available resources” (Zellman & Faller, 1996, p. 371). Only three known studies have examined reasons for screening cases in or out. First, Karski (1999) found that no reporting or case factors were associated with whether cases were screened in or out. This finding appears to be more related to the policies of that agency, however, as this agency had an unusually high percentage of sexual abuse cases (72%) that were screened in for investigation. In studies by Giovannoni (1991) and Downing et al. (1990), reasons child protective services employees cited most commonly for screening a suspected abuse case out were that the report fell out of the legislative mandate for that agency, the information given by the reporter was judged to be unreliable, the report was vague, and the reporter appeared to be motivated to make a false report. This latter reason for screening out was especially likely when the case was within a custody dispute.There are several concerns about decisions to screen in or out. An historical concern is that race might be related to child protective services contacts. Although Karski (1999) found that race of the victim was not related to decisions to screen in or out, Sauzier (1989) instead found that child protective service contacts occurred in 36% of white families in which a child was a victim of sexual abuse as opposed to 68% of African American families. In addition, referral for services occurred in 25% of cases involving business or professional families versus 63% for unskilled labor families. Further, while the latest NIS found no significant differences in substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect by race (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996), the 1996 NCANDS national incidence study suggests that racial profiling may occur at least for sexual abuse cases (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 1998). In this study, 65% of victims of sexual abuse were Caucasian, 19% were African American, 14% were Latino, and 1% were Asian American. In national data, however, Caucasians constituted 73% of the population, African Americans constituted 12% of the population, Latinos constituted 11% of the population, and individuals of Asian descent constituted 4% of the population.4 These findings suggest that African Americans and Latinos are somewhat over-represented in identified cases of child sexual abuse, whereas Caucasians and individuals of Asian descent are somewhat under-represented. Conversely, Russell’s (1983) retrospective random community prevalence study found that the only difference in sexual abuse prevalence by race was that individuals of Asian decent were less likely to report a history of child sexual abuse. Thus, the over-representation of African Americans and Latinos in cases of identified child sexual abuse appears to be an artifact of the system of reporting, investigation, or substantiation. Another concern about the screening process is that child protective services’ mandate is primarily to protect children from caregivers who abuse them. Yet, only about 12% to 16% of all abuse in Russell’s (1983) community prevalence study was committed by caregivers.5 While cases of sexual abuse committed by individuals other than caregivers may be investigated by law enforcement, the over-representation of victims of father-daughter incest and other types of incest in identified populations suggests that children abused by someone other than a caregiver do not have the same access to treatment and other resources. Still another concern about the screening process is that workers often screen out cases that occur within a custody dispute or divorce (Downing et al., 1990; Giovannoni, 1991). This has been an area of contentious and heated debate for a number of years. This debate originated because a few small clinical studies purported that 36% to 55% of allegations made by mothers against their partners during divorce or custody disputes were not only false, but maliciously filed (Benedek & Schetky, 1985; Green, 1986) More rigorous studies using larger samples have instead found that false disclosures within custody disputes remain rare (Jones & McGraw, 1987; Paradise, Rostain, & Nathanson, 1988). In the largest study done to date of 9,000 court cases of divorce or custody disputes (Thoennes & Tjaden, 19901, less than 2% involved allegations of sexual abuse, and only slightly less than half of those involved mothers making allegations of sexual abuse against fathers. In the other half, fathers made allegations against the mother, stepfather, or mother’s boyfriend, mothers made allegations against a third party, or allegations were made by someone other than a parental figure. The authors concluded that allegations made during a custody or divorce dispute were no more likely to be unfounded than other reports of child sexual abuse. The 1998 NCANDS (a yearly national incidence study) also tracked five states to record all intentionally false reports. Of 257,627 reports of child abuse or neglect filed in these states, 1,6 18 (or 0.7%) were intentionally false (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2000c). Another study by Faller (1991a) examined 136 reports of child sexual abuse made during custody or divorce disputes. The largest group of cases (38%) was of sexual abuse that began only after the parent’s separation. In many of these cases the father was sexually attracted to the child even during the marriage. Eight percent of the allegations were filed in cases where the mother was seeking a divorce because her child had disclosed sexual abuse by the father while they were married, and 19% were of ongoing father-daughter incest that was only disclosed during the divorce proceedings. In only 2% of the total sample, however, were the allegations made by a parent who was consciously lying. In other cases in which abuse did not occur, the parent genuinely suspected abuse, and in some cases the child had been sexually abused, but by someone other than the mother’s partner. In a similar but later study, Faller and DeVoe (1995) found that 5% of parents knowingly made false allegations. A final study by Everson and Boat (1989) compared characteristics of child protective services workers with at least one false report of sexual abuse in their caseload to workers with no false reports. Groups differed on two important factors. First, the group with false reports had an overall substantiation rate of 45%, as compared to 63% for the group with no false reports. Second, whereas workers without false reports believed that about 5% of children lied about abuse allegations, workers with false reports believed that about 12% of children did so. Further, workers with false disclosures believed that 20% of adolescents’ disclosures are false, and 13% of workers with false reports believed that more than half of all adolescents’ reports are false. This study suggests that at least a subset of child protective services workers maintains extreme biases towards children and adolescents. These studies suggest that malicious reports of sexual abuse made by parents during a custody or visitation dispute are rare. More importantly, the majority of allegations filed in custody or dispute cases are confirmed (Faller, 1991a). Yet, child protective services workers remain highly suspicious of these cases, resulting in a high level of cases screened out. The consequences of routinely screening out these cases is dramatized in a study of cases referred to an organization working with protective parents who had made formal allegations of sexual abuse against partners (Neustein & Goetting, 1999). In this self-selected sample, family court awarded 70% of the alleged offenders unsupervised access to the child either through joint custody or unsupervised visitation, and 20% of alleged offenders were awarded primary custody. While this study has a somewhat biased sample, its findings are still of great concern. Given the extraordinary cost to the child within a custody or divorce dispute whose valid case of sexual abuse is screened out, it seems more logical to always screen in these cases. The final concern about the screening process is that it is partially a fiscal decision. Because budgets for child protective services have decreased significantly in recent years, agencies have had to restrict the cases they investigate. While not all reported cases need to be investigated, it is of great concern that some are screened out as a result of restricted definitions of abuse that have changed because of monetary considerations. Further, findings presented in this section suggest that child protective services is placing many children at risk for further abuse by failing to consider that allegations made in custody or divorce disputes are usually valid. Finally, child protective services’ narrow jurisdiction of cases of suspected abuse by only a caretaker ensures that most victims of child sexual abuse are never officially identified and thus never receive treatment.

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