Almost all reports to child protective services (CPS) are made by individuals who are seeking to protect children from harm. There are, undoubtedly, a significant number of false reports made to CPS in an attempt to harass and intimidate families. However, research suggests false reports make up a very small percentage of reports made to CPS.
“Unsubstantiated Reports”, on the other hand, make up a very sizable portion of reports to CPS. More than ⅔ of reports investigated by CPS are determined to be unsubstantiated, or find no evidence of child maltreatment. There are approximately 4 million reports to CPS in the United States each year, and more than 2.5 million of those reports are unsubstantiated (USDHHS, 2022).
What are “Unsubstantiated Reports”?
Reports made to CPS are determined to be “unsubstantiated” when, after an investigation, CPS has not found enough evidence to support the allegation of maltreatment. The legal standard used to determine whether a report should be substantiated varies by state, but includes terms such as “credible evidence” and “preponderance of the evidence”.
It is possible that CPS determines after an investigation that a report should be unsubstantiated, but in fact abuse or neglect is occurring, or has occurred. In those cases, CPS might not have had access to information necessary to corroborate the concerns. People they spoke to during the investigation might not have been honest about what happened, or evidence might not have been available for CPS to examine.
More often, reports are unsubstantiated after investigation because the concerns included in the report were educated guesses made by a reporter based on their observations of a child’s condition or behavior, but the actual situation in the home did not involve child maltreatment.
Are Unsubstantiated Reports a Problem?
Unsubstantiated reports are a BIG problem and for various reasons.
Every time a report is accepted by CPS, they are required by law to conduct an investigation. Every investigation involves using government resources, and that costs money, and takes time. When CPS workers are busy with investigations that are ultimately unsubstantiated, they have less time to focus on cases where the abuse is clear, and the need for intervention immediate.
Unsubstantiated reports contribute to unnecessary family intrusion and trauma. Every investigation requires a CPS worker to make contact with the family on the report. That means each family gets a knock at their door that they likely are not expecting. The CPS worker tells that family that a report has been received which suggests that the parent is not appropriately caring for their own child. The children are often interviewed, and sometimes examined by medical professionals. The home is likely to be evaluated for cleanliness, and the cupboards checked for adequate food. Each family investigated by CPS experiences stress and anxiety as a result of that investigation. And every year, there are over 2.5 million families who are subjected to intrusive investigations without finding adequate evidence that the family did anything wrong. Those families are often traumatized and wary of seeking assistance in the future.
How Can We Minimize Unsubstantiated Reports?
Almost all unsubstantiated reports are made by people who legitimately believe they are doing the right thing. Most reports come from professionals who are “mandated reporters”. Mandated reporters are required by law to report their suspicions of child maltreatment to CPS. If a mandated reporter fails to make a report to CPS when the law says they are required to, they can be sued or charged with a crime. As a result of the fear of legal liability, mandated reporters often make reports to CPS even when their concerns do not meet the legal standard necessary for requiring a report.
If reporters want to minimize unsubstantiated reports, they should avoid making unnecessary reports.
Mandated reporters are only required to make reports when:
Their concerns meet the definition of child maltreatment in their state, AND,
Their concerns meet the level of suspicion to trigger a requirement to report. This level of suspicion most likely relates to the “reasonableness” standard.
Not all concerns need to be reported to CPS. Only reasonable suspicions that meet a definition of child maltreatment.
Be a “Mandated Supporter"
In situations where a mandated reporter has concerns that do not meet these criteria, they can work, instead, as a “mandated supporter”. “Mandated supporters” aim to help families in need access resources to minimize the risk of harm to children. By helping families before maltreatment occurs, mandated supporters can actually prevent the requirement to make a report to CPS.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2003). Decision-Making in Unsubstantiated Child Protective Services Cases: Synthesis of Recent Research. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Available from: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/decisionmaking.pdf
Raz, M. (2020). Calling child protective services is a form of community policing that should be used appropriately: Time to engage mandatory reporters as to the harmful effects of unnecessary reports. Children and Youth Services Review, 110, Article 104817.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau. (2022). Child Maltreatment 2020. Available from: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/data-research/child-maltreatment.