But that doesn't mean fewer children are being mistreated in Georgia, said Melissa Carter, the director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.
“The change in numbers is much more about (policy changes) than it is an indication we’ve made progress in solving this social problem,” she said. “It’s challenging to make that type of determination.”
There are a few reasons for the fluctuation in numbers.
In 2013, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services began rolling out a statewide central hotline for people to easily report their suspicions that a child was being abused or neglected. That same year, the Georgia Legislature expanded the range of people who are required to report suspected abuse to a “close to universal reporting policy,” Carter said.
State law now requires anyone who is an employee or volunteer at a public entity or a private or nonprofit business that provides supervision of children to report suspected abuse.
Erica Sitkoff, the executive director of the nonprofit Voices for Georgia's Children, said that policy change helped make Georgians pay closer attention to the signs of abuse.
“There are that many more people out there thinking about child well-being in a more overt way and taking action,” she said. “The fact that there are more reports is a good thing.”
Even with all the reports, Carter said national studies show that only about one-quarter to one-third of abuse is ever reported to a child protection authority.
The discrepancy between the number of allegations and the number of cases found to have evidence also correlates to the state’s implementation in 2016 of the Child Abuse Registry, which could keep someone from fostering, adopting or working with children if an accusation of abuse is “substantiated.”
DFCS Director Tom Rawlings said social workers investigating an allegation now weigh the current safety of a child against the evidence that abuse occurred — for example, if a boyfriend committed the abuse but is no longer in the picture. If the child is safe, the case may not be considered a “substantiated” case of abuse.
“If we have a serious physical abuse case, sexual abuse, severe neglect, harming a child, we’ll ‘substantiate’ for the Child Abuse Registry because we know that person shouldn’t be working in a day care,” Rawlings said.
But Carter said shifting the guidelines for what substantiates an accusation makes it difficult to track the issue of child abuse.
“Now we have abandoned the metric that is the industry metric for safety,” she said. “We need to develop some other metric to understand precisely what is being measured when the agency is responding to a report. … It’s complicated. The challenge is a knee-jerk desire that everyone is looking for a silver bullet. But families are more complex.”
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a longtime child welfare advocate, said she worries the Child Abuse Registry might be keeping social workers from substantiating claims.
“I’m concerned about the drop in substantiated reports,” she said. “I’m heartened by the number of cases being reported. I wish we knew more about what it means.”
Rawlings said many times a family reported for suspected child abuse or neglect is struggling in one way or another and just needs access to services that the division provides.
“The vast majority just need help,” he said. “So many cases involve addiction with parents who are in recovery, mental health issues, poverty, lack of transportation. In these instances there are reasonable grounds to believe this family just needs our services.”
Still, Rawlings said the division is looking at how it flags an allegation as being “substantiated.”
To help with that, he said DFCS needs to implement a way to quickly identify serious cases. Rawlings said that while DFCS caseworkers have access to family information including birth certificates, demographics and any medical issues as birth, it takes a while to investigate it all.
“We have a wide system that picks up a lot of stuff,” he said, “but we need to refine it so we can distinguish actual maltreatment versus there just appearing to be something wrong.”
Child abuse cases
Source: Georgia Division of Family and Children Services