Some lawmakers push to end anonymous child abuse reporting in Tennessee

Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 8:21 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee lawmakers are considering a bill to get rid of anonymous child abuse reporting.

The legislation would require people reporting suspected child abuse or neglect in Tennessee to provide their name and contact information before the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) investigates.

Tennessee offers multiple ways to report child abuse, including a hotline and a website.

DCS said 123,776 child abuse reports were taken in 2020. Of those reports, 22,711 (18.3 percent) were reported anonymously.

Tuesday, state lawmakers heard from parents who said anonymous and false reporting turned their lives into a nightmare, forcing them to endure months and years of DSC investigations and court hearings to the point that they felt harassed.

“I took an oath to defend liberty for all Americans, yet what my family has experienced is nothing short of tyranny,” said Chad Farley, a parent and former air force member.

“The facts are is that a simple call can create a lifelong trauma for a family with no accountability from the state, no accountability from whoever made that report,” said Abigail West, another parent.

The parents suspect angry relatives or ex-spouses seeking revenge filed false child abuse reports against them, but they have no way of knowing since the reporters were anonymous.

They spoke in favor of HB 908/SB104, which would require people who report suspected child abuse or neglect to reveal names and provide contact information before DCS investigates.

The bill’s author, Representative Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski, said he has been contacted by many other parents who said they were falsely accused of child abuse and neglect and endured harassment by DSC and law enforcement.

“I feel that in my heart that the Department of Children’s Services’ hearts are in the right place,” Doggett said. “Everyone wants to make sure we’re protecting children. “It’s unfortunate that things such as anonymous reporting can happen when it’s done maliciously.”

But DCS and child advocates like Virginia Stallworth, the executive director of the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, said getting rid of anonymous reporting would cause more harm to children.

“If we do not have the option for anonymous reporting, there will be children out there who need us for whom a report will never get made,” said Stallworth.

Stallworth said some people who suspect child abuse is taking place may fear retribution if they report it.

“It takes for some people some real courage to make a decision to make a report of suspected abuse,” said Stallworth.

Drew Wright, the executive director of legislation and policy for DCS, said if lawmakers got rid of anonymous reporting, it would “chill” child abuse reporting.

“Sometimes when abuse or dangerous things occur to children, that abuse escalates. And so if something is able to be reported early on, it’s better,” said Wright.

State Representative Torrey Harris said he understands both sides of the issue, but getting rid of anonymous reporting isn’t the answer.

“I know and I understand where people feel as though they are being harassed or as an adult, they may feel like this is going against them, but every single child deserves a full investigation on every single claim that comes in,” said Harris.

Wright said the current law addresses concerns the parents have about false reports against them.

He said it is a felony to file a false report, though he could not say how aggressively law enforcement agencies investigate false child abuse reporting.

He said as a former prosecutor, he prosecuted false reports more broadly speaking but did not recall ever prosecuting a false report of child abuse.

Lawmakers plan to keep looking at this issue over the next several months.

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