Last year, Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services took in more than 120,000 reports of abuse — a significant decline from 2019. While that sounds like good news, it isn’t: The COVID-19 pandemic made it harder to spot and report abuse, because children were not in school or other programs where teachers and other caregivers could spot potential abuse.
Now Tennessee lawmakers are considering a law (House Bill 908/Senate Bill 1014) that could make reporting abuse more difficult. The bill, if passed, would mean that anyone deciding to report suspected child abuse or neglect would no longer be able to do so anonymously. Child advocates are very concerned that this bill, if made law, could become a great deterrent to reporting neglect or abuse. Feeling we should always err on the side of providing the best care and safety for our children, I understand that concern.
The law is not needed.
There is already a state law serving to punish those who file false abuse or neglect reports with up to six years in prison or a fine of as much as $50,000. Yes, there are anecdotal reports of parents or families who have had their lives turned upside-down by false accusations of abuse or neglect. Advocates for the bill argue that the anonymous reporting system too easily allows vengeful accusers to make a false report, and that a new reporting system is needed.
Rep. Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski) and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) sponsored the bill, which would allow abuse reports to request confidentiality, but would also allow the accused person to petition the court for the identity of the reporter. If “good cause” is shown, a judge could provide the accused with that information. Doggett tells The Tennessean that “the intent is to give wrongly accused people a legal avenue to pursue compensation for the damage they suffer.”
But what is best for the children? Will this bill deter reporting of abuse? Child advocates think so. Kristen Pavlik McCallie, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hamilton County, tells WRCB-TV in Chattanooga: “I think this legislation can be very damaging to folks who are reporting in good faith, [and] most reports are made in good faith.” Drew Wright of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services further argues that some who report child abuse “do so anonymously because they fear retaliation from the person who they’ll be alleging the abuse against.”
“We might lose one [report] that might protect a child from dying, and that’s not worth the risk,” Wright tells The Tennessean.
In 2020, the DCS took 123,776 child abuse reports, with nearly 1 in 5 of those an anonymous report. But research shows that false reports are only about 4 to 8 percent of the total, and that most fabricated reports are submitted by adults involved in custody battles. More worrisome is the fact that less than one-third of abuse incidents are reported, according to the advocacy organization Darkness to Light.
Being the target of a false allegation is damaging and can take years to mend. The investigation process itself takes a long time, because child abuse of any kind is difficult to trace. But we have a duty to protect children. Unfortunately, child abuse most commonly comes from someone the victim knows. Though it’s certainly troubling to think of parents who may have been falsely accused, it isn’t wise to create a law that could be detrimental to the process of finding a real child abuser.
Doggett has said he will work with lawmakers to examine additional options before bringing the bill forward during next year’s legislative session. I hope he will stand by that. After all, the goal is to ensure that our children are safe and protected, to the best of our abilities. The goal is also to keep safe those who are trying to help a child by reporting abuse in good faith. If anonymity is taken away, we could fall short of both of those important goals. We could endanger the lives of children unnecessarily.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.