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Another Voice: Some reforms of Child Protective Services could put children at risk

By Melanie Blow

It is welcome news that Erie County Child Protective Services has shown improvement in the last six months. Keeping caseloads low is necessary to ensure that all cases get the attention they deserve. Unfortunately, some of the proposals Erie County has been putting forward may reduce caseloads at the expense of children’s safety.

Sen. Tim Kennedy and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, both D-Buffalo, have introduced bills to improve CPS statewide and keep children safer. These bills will broaden the definition of physical abuse, recognize clusters of calls about the same family as needing investigation, prevent investigators from interviewing that child in the presence of the alleged abuser, and increase the level of training needed to become a supervisor. Under these reforms, investigations will be conducted more thoroughly and CPS workers, along with their supervisors, can be more confident in their assessments.

The county is right in saying that most reports to CPS are not indicated (confirmed after investigation), but that doesn’t mean they are false or malicious. Increasing the penalties for false reports is misguided and could discourage individuals from reporting difficult-to-prove, but serious, cases. Malicious reports are made with the intent to cause harm to the child’s guardian. But these are rare, and the existing penalties are rarely used.

Proposals to eliminate anonymous mandated reporting are also unwise. Currently, only non-mandated reporters can report allegations of abuse and neglect anonymously. This is by design a protection for both children and their families.

Many anonymous reports come from a child’s close family, often the only ones who truly know what is happening behind closed doors. In volatile family situations, anonymous reporting is necessary to protect those who may fear for their lives.

I applaud the county, Kennedy and Peoples-Stokes for taking on the vital issue of reforming CPS. In addition to the reforms proposed by the legislators, we must increase funding for prevention programs. Preventing abuse from starting is the best way to reduce caseloads. A vital program called Healthy Families NY helps new parents at high risk for abusive or neglectful behaviors learn positive parenting and life skills. It prevents child abuse from happening and saves taxpayer money in both the short and long term. This program has never served more than 10 percent of eligible families, and has been flat-funded for years, thus shrinking its scope.

Simply put, Kennedy and People-Stokes are right to push these reforms. Support for these bills and an increased investment in prevention programs like Healthy Families NY will mean a safer future for victims of child abuse and a future where child abuse is rare.

Melanie Blow is the legislative advocacy specialist for Prevent Child Abuse NY.