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The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –
Legislators in Tennessee are considering a change in the way reporting of child abuse and neglect is handled in the state by requiring reporters to identify themselves and also allowing those who are accused to petition the court for that information.
Those in favor of the proposed legislation say that the current anonymous reporting system makes it far too easy for false child abuse claims to be made in an attempt to retaliate against someone.
Representatives from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services argue that forcing reporters to disclose their identity could make those with true complaints more hesitant to make those reports out of fear for their own safety if the accused gains access to their identity.
The bill is being pushed by Representative Clay Doggett of Pulaski and Senator Janice Bowling of Tullahoma. If passed, anyone who reports child abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect would have to provide their name and contact information to the Department of Children’s Services.
Those details should remain confidential within the department. However, if the accused petitions the court for the reporter’s identity, the bill would allow that information to be released by a judge if it is determined that there is “good cause shown.”
According to Doggett, the proposed legislation would give those who are accused wrongly a way to legally seek compensation for damages suffered.
“The main intent is for them to…pursue some type of criminal charges or civil charges against the person for the harassment,” Doggett said. “You have an avenue to go through the courts for remedy.”
Legislators listened to emotional arguments made by individuals who had been on the wrong side of those false accusations. According to them, the current system acts as a shield for reporters, allowing them to anonymously make false claims and leaving those who are wrongly accused with recourse when claims are shown to be fake.
Those speaking out in favor of changing the system provided a number of narratives detailing their stories of false accusations. They suspect that the false claims were made by ex-spouses or angry relatives who were out for revenge. Those suspicions cannot be proven because the reports were made anonymously.
Abigail West of Nashville said she was falsely accused during what she described as a “nasty” custody battle for her daughter. Although she did everything the state asked of her and passed a drug screen, her daughter was still removed from her home. She had to wait nine months for the state to determine that the accusations were false before her daughter was returned.
“I still don’t know why they took my baby for nine months,” West said. “An anonymous call created an avalanche of unneeded trauma for my family.”
Drew Wright, legislation and policies director for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services argues that there is already legislation that serves to punish those who file false reports of abuse and neglect. Tennessee law says that knowingly filing or helping to file a false report of abuse is a Class E felony. This can result in up to six years in prison or a fine of up to $50,000.
State law says that any Tennessee resident who suspects child abuse or neglect is obligated to report that information. However, Wright argues that the proposed bill could actually make people less likely to report legitimate abuse out of fear of being found out.
“Certain folks who do report child abuse choose to do so anonymously because they fear retaliation from the person who they’ll be alleging the abuse against,” Wright said. “We might lose one that might protect a child from dying, and that’s not worth the risk.”
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According to Doggett, he has been approached by many parents who have suffered through false accusations.
“I feel in my heart that the Department of Children’s Services’ hearts are in the right place,” Doggett stated. “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.”
Doggett says he will continue to work with legislators to find an option that will serve as a solution to the problem. He says that if a better option can be found, he will not push the bill forward in next year’s legislative session.
“You don’t want reporters to fall victim to harassment or intimidation themselves for trying to do the right thing,” he said. “But at the same time, for those that are being malicious by… (reporting) wrongfully… you can get the information for someone that’s making the false report if their information is confidential.”
Tennessee currently offers several methods for reporting child abuse, including a website and a hotline – 877-237-0004. Out of 123,776 abuse reports made in 2020, just under 20% of those were done anonymously.
About the Author: Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative ~ Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career. Most recently, he served as Deputy Directory for their flagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in the Herald Citizen, the Crossville Chronicle and The Oracle among others. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History. Contact Jason at news@TennesseeConservativeNews.com