top of page

Calls to Child Abuse Hotline Down - Do Reports Keep Children Safe?

Lucas Brady Woods, Host: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a drop in calls to New York State’s child abuse hotline. But do fewer calls really mean that kids are safer? Reports of abuse are often filed by so-called mandated reporters. And now, a debate has emerged among child welfare experts over whether these reports reveal patterns of race based discrimination. As Anya Schultz finds, critics of the system say there were too many calls to begin with.

Anya Schultz: Lots of New Yorkers are mandated reporters. Doctors, counselors, police officers, teachers. State law requires that if a mandated reporter suspects a kid is being abused or neglected they have to report it by calling a state hotline. Here’s a clip from a training video.

((Sound: State Central Register phone call “Good morning, this is the New York State Central Register, my name is Gary, how may I help you today?))

Schultz: If it seems like the child is in danger a caseworker will investigate the family. Schools make more calls than any type of mandated reporter - which makes sense. That’s where kids spend most of their time. Carina Rodriguez is Director of Counseling for New York City public schools. She says mandated reporting has been difficult with social distancing.

Carina Rodriguez: Students may not have privacy, you know, to be able to tell the counselor like, hey, you know this is happening, right, when they're in school there's a sense of safety.

Schultz: Last year parents of almost 85,000 children were investigated in New York City. According to New York’s Office of Children and Family Services, calls to the state hotline have “decreased slightly” since mid March. Annie Costello, of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, supports mandated reporting. She says it’s even more important now that kids are stuck at home all day and potentially subject to more abuse.

Annie Costello: There is that concern that maybe children are at greater risk. So during times of extra stress, this could increase abuse in the home.

Schultz: But Joyce McMillan says the whole concept of mandated reporters is rooted in racism. So, she says, it doesn't help children. Instead, it preys on low-income families. Putting them under heavy scrutiny - and sometimes leading to family separations. She remembers sending her daughter to middle school wearing shorts in the late fall.

Joyce McMillan: It was definitely too chilly to wear shorts. Definitely. But she was in a mood that morning as a youngster and demanded that she wear shorts. And I didn't have time to fight.

Schultz: The school called in a report saying that McMillan didn’t dress her daughter properly. A child welfare worker came to the school to investigate. McMillan says this kind of thing happens a lot. It was a continual nightmare she experienced sending her daughter, who is black, to a mostly white school. It was so bad that she became an advocate to help parents like her. She says mandated reporting is like stop and frisk.

McMillan: Stop and frisk did not make crimes go down. It was a way to harass the black community. And it's the same thing with mandated reportership.

Schultz: According to state data, most of the calls made to New York’s hotline are not about child abuse. More often they’re accusations of neglect - not having enough food or missing too much school. And most cases close with workers finding no evidence of abuse or neglect. Richard Wexler, of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, agrees with McMillan. He says kids are safer without mandated reporters.

Wexler: So if mandated reporters inundate the system with false allegations, trivial cases, cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect, then the system is so overloaded workers have less time to find children in real danger.

Schultz: Erin Miles Cloud represented parents accused of neglect in New York City family court for years. Now she works to reform child welfare. She says, yes home isn’t always a safe space for kids. But she’s more worried about the system of mandated reporting being seen as the best solution.

Miles Cloud: If we leave this pandemic entrenching that narrative what we will end up doing is bolstering mandated reporting long term which will have really harmful impacts on families moving forward.

Schultz: She says instead of reporting families for what they don’t have - housing, food, clothing, healthcare - the schools and city should work together to provide those resources. Anya Schultz, Columbia Radio News.


bottom of page