For innocent parents charged or accused of child abuse, a system that "errs on the side of the child" provides cold comfort.
But for social workers witnessing unspeakable crimes of abuse and neglect against children, the risk of overzealousness seems minor compared with the urgency to rescue kids in danger.
But activists insist reform will help both sides, protecting families while clearing caseloads so the states can devote more resources to families and children truly in trouble. Their proposed reforms include:
A clear definition of abuse and neglect. Reformers want a legal standard of abuse and serious neglect that is less open to personal interpretation. Such laws and regulations would prohibit the removal of a child from home for any reasons other than physical or sexual abuse, or serious neglect.
Restructuring child services' financial operations. Reformers want to dismantle systems that require families to work only with doctors, therapists and counselors who either hold contracts with or are employed by the state. Such reforms would also mandate the abolition of financial bonuses for states that adopt out larger numbers of foster children.
An end to secrecy. Parents' groups want the right to see all the evidence against them, including anything that would be used in court. Activists also want laws that would require caseworkers, doctors and therapists to videotape or audio-record their interviews and examinations of children; and for parents to have the right to have an attorney, clergy member, or other objective observer present during these evaluations.
Due process. Parents want the same legal rights and protections as criminals accused of crimes. That includes the right to face their accusers, to have an attorney, to be tried by a jury of their peers and the right to appeal. Due process would also prohibit child services' from entering private homes without a warrant, taking custody of children without a court order. Many of these laws are on the books, but parents and lawyers insist they are not enforced.
Some also want child abuse cases moved out of family court and into the criminal justice system, where police would determine the veracity of child abuse charges. Others argue parents could be even worse off under this system, where they would be at the mercy of potentially untrained police officers or vengeful juries.
A new plea bargain system. Parents want to overhaul or scrap the current system that usually requires them to "admit"abuse and agree to a state-mandated service plan before they get their children back. True abusers should not get their kids back, the parents insist. And innocent parents should not have their own children used against them as bargaining chips.
Independent review. Finally, activists want some measure of oversight or citizen complaint boards to monitor child protective services, or the adoption of laws that would impose penalties on caseworkers who remove children without just cause.