Guest Editorial

Imprecise child abuse laws do more harm than good

child abuse by Rep. Bill Backlund, 45th Legislative District
If they could, lawmakers would pass laws granting social workers special powers, enabling them to divine the truth in all child abuse cases. Unfortunately, magic of that nature is still the stuff of fairy tales and movies.
   I'm sure we all agree, however, that our first priority must be the protection of innocent children. We will not tolerate one child being abused or neglected by parents and we must prosecute child abusers to the full extent of the law.
   But our laws must also protect the integrity of our families. The family is the basic unit, the yardstick by which we measure our society. Guardians of our children have the most important job in the world.
   We must do whatever we can to ensure that job is performed in a loving, caring manner, for in their hands lay tomorrow's dreams, tomorrow's leaders.
   As a father, a physician, and as an elected official, I feel many different obligations to protect the children of our state, for many different reasons. But the underlying goal is the same: to protect children. One of the most visible means available to shelter our kids from harm is effective statutes governing child abuse an neglect.
   Our present child abuse law has many imprecise and vague terms in it, terms which I believe are doing our children and families more harm than good. Because the legal definitions of "abuse" and "neglect" can be interpreted so broadly today, the caseloads of Child Protective Services workers have reached Herculean heights. The result: Many legitimate cases of abuse are overlooked while workers sort fact from fiction in unsubstantiated reports.
   CPS workers today walk a fine line between overprotecting and underreporting. CPS workers have a very difficult job--a job that often touches on the dimmer side of the human psyche. They are people who deal with subjects so discomforting few of us are comfortable discussing those troubles in public.
   But like all of us, CPS workers are not without their faults. Mistakes are made, sometimes erring on the side of the child, sometimes not. Mistakes have led to the unnecessary break-up or disruption of numerous families, and that must be confronted.
   It is my contention that we need to reduce the level of unwarranted intervention while giving greater protection to children who are in real danger by improving the definitions of "abuse" and "neglect". A bill I have proposed this session, SHB 2399, addresses this very concern. I have given a lot of thought to changes that need to be made to protect innocent families and to more adequately punish guilty parties to shelter children from serious abuse.
   In 1985, CPS took part in an internal review conducted by a panel of lawmakers. The panel concluded, "it is difficult to imagine vaguer definitions of abuse and neglect than now exist in Washington law," and that the definitions of child abuse should be rewritten to increase their clarity and scope. This is the intent of my bill.
   Doug Besharov, a former director of the National Center of Child Abuse and Neglect and a current member of the New York Child Abuse Commission, has published a treatise on child abuse. In his report, Besharov states that vague definitions are proven to lead to overreporting of suspected abuse by those who are legally required to do so, such as physicians, nurses, etc. Many of the cases are unfounded, he reports, and spending time ferreting out the truth from lies reduces the ability of child protective agencies from adequately investigating legitimate cases of serious abuse.
   In a recent letter to me, Besharov said, "Based on my research, I would say that [SHB 2399] reflects the best thinking about how definitions of child abuse and neglect can be improved. More specific definitions, like those proposed, provide better guidance to persons who make reports, workers who investigate reports, and the judicial system."
   In all honesty, SHB 2399 may not be the perfect vehicle by which these changes eventually are made. But it is a needed step in the right direction. Washington's children and families are far too important to ignore this glaring snare in the child welfare system.
   Regardless of the criticism from some quarters, I will continue to work on and introduce legislation that protects the family unit and preserves the health and well-being of our children. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.

 The preceding was submitted for publication as a guest editorial.