New York’s child abuse hot line can shield false complaints
By CASEY SEILER COMMENTARY
First published in print: Friday, July 31, 2009
Someone is saying terrible things about Nicole Rera.
What’s worse, they’re saying them to the state of New York via the hot line set up to collect anonymous reports of child abuse.
So far, none of the three sets of complaints against Rera, who lives in Gloversville, have been substantiated; the first two have been officially recognized as “unfounded,” while the third is still under investigation.
Rera’s trouble started in January, after she separated from her husband. The couple, originally from Long Island, had been together for 10 years and married for three. Rera says the marriage became increasingly stormy, leading to her decision to move from Florida back to New York with her three children, ages 6 to 10. Rera’s daughter and two sons have conditions that put them on different points of the spectrum for autism.
Not long after she initially settled in Troy, Rera was visited by investigators from Rensselaer County’s Child Protective Services, who said that a call had been referred from the state abuse hot line alleging that she had committed acts of sexual and physical abuse against the children.
Those charges were determined to be unfounded; a few weeks later, another complaint was received, investigated and classified as unfounded. A third complaint was made in May.
“It’s hell,” Rera said. “It’s frustrating. It’s living on pins and needles waiting for these people to show up.”
Needless to say, family services investigators don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing which complaints to follow up on: They’re legally obligated to respond to every complaint of possible abuse. And that’s how it should be.
The baroque nature of the complaints against Rera — I’ll spare you the details, which are stomach-churning — suggest they come from someone with knowledge of family medical history. (Rera is unable to work due to various ailments, and lives on Medicaid and Social Security benefits, along with SSI payments to support her children.)
Rera’s husband could not be reached, either through conventional means or a database search.
Rensselaer County District Attorney Richard McNally says his office doesn’t currently have sufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone for filing a false abuse claim against Rera. In a two-decade career, McNally has never seen anyone charged with filing a false abuse claim.
There are two predominant reasons. First, the intentional filing of a bogus complaint is a Class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail — a crime, to be sure, but not one likely to draw much attention from local enforcement agencies with limited resources and long to-do lists.
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Also, it’s nearly impossible to build a strong case that someone is abusing the system. Even after a complaint is determined to be unfounded, it would have to be flagged as either egregiously false or part of a pattern. Then local investigators would have to track the complaint back up the chain by matching phone records to the state hot line’s intentionally incomplete records. In order to preserve anonymity, the hot line itself makes no record of the incoming phone number, although the agency does note the time a complaint is received.
But even if law enforcement can link a complaint to a specific phone, they’ll still have to prove the identity of the person using it at that moment.
Like all systems that rely on guarantees of anonymity, from the Internet to government whistleblower programs, the abuse hot line is itself open to a different sort of abuse. The greater-good argument, however, is fairly bulletproof: Even people kind-hearted enough to call the authorities — about hearing terrible sounds coming from the apartment upstairs, or the unexplained bruises on the child who lives next door — need to be assured that an alleged abuser isn’t going to try to exact retribution against them.
Similarly, it’s hard to determine when multiple reports from the same source constitute a pattern of lies. If the fifth complaint turns out to be genuine, it doesn’t necessarily mean the first four weren’t bogus.
Regardless of how many intentionally false claims are made every year — the number could be dozens or hundreds — it’s certain that every one takes time away from the pursuit of genuine cases of abuse.
Any effective solution would have to protect the anonymity of callers to the hot line. A partial remedy the state could take immediately would be to reclassify an intentional false report — something clearly done with malicious motive — as a Class E felony, which would have a deterrent effect on perpetrators and could go a long way to encourage prosecutors.
The state hot line can be reached at (800) 342-3720. If you think a child is being abused, use it. But if you’re thinking of using it to get back at someone, do us all a favor and find another method.
Casey Seiler can be reached at 454-5619 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org