In their defense, mandated reporters go through trainings that usually focus on how and when to make a call, not what happens after. Trainings are often “vague,” said Joyce McMillan, the founder of JMacForFamilies, whose children were removed from her home in 1999 for two and a half years. (McMillan founded the group to advocate for families who have similarly suffered.) The curriculum makes social workers “afraid not to report things that they could simply assist a family with.” Instead, they want to “cover their own ass” because it’s “better to be safe than sorry.” Some organizations, recognizing the murkiness, have devised layers of review. Many social workers recognize the “nuance” of situations, suggested one I spoke with—they’re trained, after all, to “live in the gray”—but when I asked her whether social workers shared a common understanding of what constituted a “reasonable” suspicion of abuse or neglect, she laughed.
Typically, an investigation after a report entails a visit to the family’s home. Armed with the threat of removing a child, investigators (many of whom don’t even have previous training in social work) look in cupboards, closets, refrigerators, ask children “to lift up their shirts, pull down their pants,” Shalleck-Klein said.
Perhaps the most damaging actions child protective services can take, short of permanently severing parental rights, are emergency removals, which are incredibly traumatic. “They’re banging on the door,” Shalleck-Klein said, “the police are sometimes involved, there’s screaming, there’s yelling, they’re grabbing a child out of bed, sleeping.” In New York City, as many as a third of these removals are overturned by a judge the very day they’re reviewed; more get reversed in subsequent hearings. The kids remain separated from their parent until a removal is reversed, of course. Child protective services “isn’t trying to harm children,” Shalleck-Klein said. “But they do by discounting the trauma of these removals.”