3 ways

Three Ways Child Welfare Agencies Could Improve Their Investigations

According to an old maxim, you should never raise your voice to complain about a problem unless you can offer a solution.

I’m not sure how true that is – seems to me that there is value in merely pointing out that the house is on fire – but it does seem only fair that, after pointing out serious problems with CPS investigations, I give some space to constructive suggestions on how to fix those problems.

In other words: If our “house” is in fact on fire, then allow me to point out three potential firefighting tools at our disposal.

Offer Better Training in Investigative Techniques and Procedure

First and foremost, CPS must stop asking its social workers to become police detectives, or failing that, must offer far superior training in proper investigative procedure.

Social workers are trained and equipped to evaluate issues such as the suitability of housing for a child, or whether the child is properly fed and clothed, or if the child is exhibiting symptoms of untreated medical or psychological conditions. That’s what they are passionate about, and that’s their job.

It is fundamentally unfair to those people – most of whom, I still believe, are good people who mean well – to expect them to become Serpico and investigate whether criminal activity took place between a parent or caretaker and a child.

But if you are going to expect these workers to fill the role of detective in such high-stakes scenarios that directly and immediately affect the most basic Constitutional rights of the targets of those investigations, then you’d better improve the training the investigating workers receive.

They need to understand basic principles, such as interviewing techniques, evidence-gathering procedures, and civil rights laws.

Most of all, they need to understand that human psychology is much more complex than their training and experience might have led them to believe, and they need some training in causative logic and critical thinking – i.e., just because A is true, does it necessarily follow that B and C must also be true?

Please understand, I’m not saying child welfare caseworkers are illogical or that they lack common sense.

Rather, it’s the normal environment these workers function in that requires and cultivates a very different mindset than the one that ought to be employed in the investigation of abuse claims.

Simply put, caseworkers investigating abuse allegations are no longer advocates but must remain neutral, especially during the early days of the investigation.

And that segues nicely into the second suggestion…

Respect and Maintain Boundaries Between Different Roles and Functions

It seems obvious: A counselor cannot play investigator and advocate in the same case.

The roles are simply incompatible in the same individual. A completely different mindset and approach are required to investigate a criminal act as opposed to counsel the victim or advocate for her interests.

First and foremost, an advocate must believe the victim’s story without reservation or hesitation. But an investigator cannot simply believe the story being told straight from the outset.

Personnel who are investigating the charges, therefore, must be trained in critical thinking and must consciously resist the societal impulse to “believe the child.” That’s not to say the investigator must never believe the child.

Rather, what I’m advocating is true skepticism. The true skeptic never says “That couldn’t have happened” or “I’m absolutely sure that did happen.” The true skeptic, instead, says, “I understand you’re saying that this event occurred. Now, I’m going to go look for evidence that it did occur and for evidence that it did not occur.”

It’s that last bit – the willingness to search for evidence against the truth of the accusations – which is so often missing in false abuse cases.

Get Much Better at the Forensic Interview Process, and Learn to Spot When a Child Has Previously Been Questioned in a Leading Manner

I’ve combined these two suggestions, because they both concern the most basic element of an abuse investigation: the interview of the alleged victim.

Children are highly susceptible to leading interview methods. If you’re not highly trained and experienced in forensic interviewing techniques, often the result of a sequence of interviews with the child is a false planted memory of abuse that never actually happened.

What this means is that even a well-intentioned, educated adult who cares about the child in a false abuse case can inadvertently do as much damage to the child as if the abuse had actually occurred. This is true because the child’s brain and psychological conditioning make no distinction between the memory of something that actually happened versus the “memory” of something that didn’t happen at all.

In both cases, the resulting trauma to the child is the same.

Not only is the child traumatized, but the alleged “perpetrator” then becomes the next victim, through the loss of reputation, standing, employment, support, relationships, and perhaps even freedom.

Proper forensic training techniques teach interviewers to avoid the easy-to-miss traps of phrasing, intonation, question sequence and stress that trip up the well-intentioned novice and plant those false memories in a young, impressionable, and undeveloped brain.

False Allegations vs. Abuse Epidemic: A False Dichotomy

I think the problem stems from a false dichotomy that has been established by the media and some professional talking heads and pundits. I believe that as a society we may have been conditioned to think about these issues in the context of an either/or equation:

Either the U.S. has an epidemic of child abuse and CPS doesn’t do enough to stop it …

OR the U.S. has a growing epidemic of false abuse allegations and CPS is too eager to lock up innocent people and take away their children.

That’s a false dichotomy.  Both scenarios can be true, because each case of alleged abuse must be viewed independently.

It’s better to think of these two conditions as opposing extremes, and equip and encourage our CPS agencies to tread the middle line more carefully.