One of the many things that the COVID-19 pandemic affected was the reporting of child abuse and neglect. School and childcare personnel often have the most frequent and the most direct contact with children, so when schools and childcare facilities shut down, there was a natural decrease in reporting.
As a family law practitioner, however, the cases I have seen that involve Child Protective Services are often cases where a parent has reported the other parent. In some cases, this is legitimate, and necessary. Unfortunately, in a subsection of cases, it is used as a tool or a legal strategy to harm the other parent. Parents who engage in this type of psychological warfare often suffer from a personality disorder and are also extremely manipulative.
Coaching The Child
The first tool such parents often employ is to coach the child to make disclosures to a therapist, doctor, or school official. In this way, the actual report is being made by a neutral mandatory reporter and not the parent directly to the agency. This makes the report seem more credible, and often circumvents screening procedures child welfare agencies already have in place where parents and not another mandatory reporter are making the report.
The complicating factor in such cases is that once an investigation commences, especially if it involves allegations of sexual abuse, it can take a long time to complete and there cannot be any contact between the child and the alleged abuser until the investigation is over. In cases where child medical or forensic examinations have to be completed, overworked case workers also have to contend with the schedules of the other professionals who have to complete their work to bring the investigation to closure. During this time, the accusing parent has more time with the child and the accused parent becomes even more estranged. In cases where nothing is substantiated, the devastating impact this has on the parent-child relationship often makes a return to the custodial schedule that had been in place untenable.
Such cases often involve similar patterns of behavior in which accusing parents make reports at strategic points in relation to court dates in a legal case, hoping it will support their narrative about the other parent as an abuser, or result in a continuance of the family court case while the investigation is pending. Accusing parents often have the child document things in journals, lists, or even e-mails to try to manufacture evidence, which contain information or adult terms that do not align with the child’s vocabulary or developmental age. In some cases, the accusing parent has taken the child to a therapist or mental health provider without the other parent’s knowledge or consent, or has changed the child’s therapist multiple times to find a clinician who will buy into their narrative and fill the role they need that person to play. In a surprising number of cases, with a little digging, it can become evident that the parent has made multiple false reports in the past which have been rejected or has made false allegations against other people.
The biggest problem in such cases is that the repercussions for parents who manufacture false allegations of abuse against another parent are often slim to none. Parents who have been the subject of such accusations, even when exonerated, are often too exhausted and beaten down to pursue any potential tort remedies that may be available. In domestic cases, courts are often reluctant to impose drastic schedule changes fearing this will be a punishment to the child more than to the offending parent. The lack of consequences for parents who engage in such behaviors ignores the reality that their behavior in and of itself is a form of child abuse and is likely to continue without some negative consequences for the false reporting.