Parents’ Nightmare: Social Worker’s ‘Feelings’ Contribute to Child Abuse Allegations

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
June 5, 2019Updated: February 3, 2020

It’s one of the last things a parent wants to encounter—a social worker at the door with allegations of child abuse. What may come as a surprise to many is that such allegations can be based on little more than a “gut feeling.”

Those mandated to report potential child abuse are apparently encouraged to base their suspicions on signs that appear to have only a vague connection to child abuse and even may be based on the accuser’s feelings.

Authorities have operated under the mantra that the child’s health and safety, not preserving the family, “shall be the paramount concern,” as enshrined in the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act spearheaded by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Yet in reality, Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies are investigating parents and often removing their children for questionable reasons—just to be on the safe side—resulting in drastic measures that have decimated families.

Case in point—Philadelphia.

In fiscal 2018, more than 5,500 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect were reported in Philadelphia—about one for every 63 children in the city (pdf). The local Department of Human Services (DHS) placed more than 2,700 children in the foster care system that year—one in 125 children in the city. That’s the highest rate among America’s 10 largest cities, about triple that of New York City, even when adjusted for poverty (pdf), according to the nonprofit National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR).

However, only about 1,000 neglect/abuse reports that year were substantiated, meaning adjudicated in court or backed by evidence that “outweighs inconsistent evidence and which a reasonable person would accept as adequate,” according to the state law.

In some cases, the allegations were actually determined to be unfounded, but the children were still taken away, according to Philadelphia Councilman David Oh.

The question is, why?

‘Gut Feeling’

Oh, one of three Republicans on the 17-member City Council, saw up close how the DHS system works last summer when his 8-year-old son was hurt at judo practice.

Oh is a black belt in several martial arts and has been passing on the heritage to his four children. During one judo throw, the boy landed incorrectly and, despite the floor pads, broke his clavicle, Oh said.


At the hospital, a social worker told the parents to leave the room so that she could talk to the boy alone. From what Oh later gathered from his son, the woman didn’t inquire at all about what happened, but instead said, “You don’t like judo, do you?” The boy replied, “sometimes.”

The social worker then informed Oh that she would report him to the DHS, because his son didn’t want to learn judo and that an adult man shouldn’t be teaching judo to a child. “Is it cultural bias?” Oh said he asked her. “I mean, what if it was football or soccer, wrestling, or break dancing, or riding a bicycle?”

She said that she reports every instance where a child gets hurt in an activity done with an adult man, Oh said.

Oh explained the situation to the attending doctor, who agreed there was no need to report the case to the DHS, but when he talked to the social worker again, she said she’d reported it already.

Indeed, another social worker later came to Oh’s house to investigate what was reported as “abusive discipline.”

“If you get a complaint that this Asian man is forcing his son to learn judo so he can beat up on him, you will come out to my house with the idea, ‘Let me check and see if he’s really teaching judo or if he’s really just using it as an excuse to get his jollies by beating up his son,” Oh said in a phone interview. “And that’s the problem. There is only evidence that that is not the case … That’s a false report.”

Endorsed From the Top

Oh spoke to the hospital’s vice president and the supervisor of its social workers. He said he thought that perhaps the woman reporting his case had a “bad day” or was insufficiently trained, and he wanted to make sure others wouldn’t be put in a similar situation.

Yet, the officials told him the social worker did exactly what she was supposed to do.

“Any time she has a gut feeling that something is not right, she should report it to DHS,” Oh said he was told.

As a lawyer and a legislator, Oh knew that’s not how things work in the legal realm.

“There is absolutely no standard in this world that [allows you to] use your gut feelings,” he said. “So I said, ‘That cannot possibly be the law. You’re basically saying that people can use their subjective opinions about other people because of the way they look, they dress, their race, their ethnicity, their religion, to [report] people.’”

He was then told, “It’s in the better interest of children that we use a better-safe-than-sorry standard. So if you have any suspicion or gut feeling that something might be wrong, even though you can’t identify what it is, just report it to the DHS.”

“Because in their opinion, they’re just reporting and then DHS will pick it from there,” he said.

Oh has a different opinion.

“That’s very much like, ‘The more fire alarms you pull and the more fire engines that go out to false alarms, the safer the city is from fires.’” he said. “You’re wasting a lot of resources, you’re not focusing your resources where they should be. You are encouraging prejudice.”

The City Hall building in Philadelphia
The City Hall building in Philadelphia on Dec. 3, 2017. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

He went on to speak to DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa.

He offered to jointly develop with her more “objective guidelines” for people who are required by state law to report child abuse, which is virtually everybody who comes into contact with children on the job.

“What I got back from the DHS commissioner is, ‘No. They are doing exactly what they’re supposed to. If they have a gut feeling, they should report it, and then we’ll investigate it.’”

Oh disagreed. “I found that to be in violation of the law,” he said.

Child abuse and neglect are handled differently by different states, although there are many commonalities. In Pennsylvania, mandated reporters are supposed to notify DHS when they have a “reasonable cause to suspect” that abuse or neglect occurred.

“Reasonable cause” is a standard of proof featured in multiple legal settings. It has been used, for example, by a police officer to stop and briefly detain a person. It is usually described as having a cause that would lead a reasonable person presented with the same circumstances to the same conclusion.

But the state appears to endorse including more subjective feelings in the determination.


“All you need is reasonable cause to suspect. Information to support your concern may include the circumstances, your observations, your familiarity with the people and the situation, and your feelings and beliefs,” states a slide in a three-hour online training course by the University of Pittsburgh that has been approved by the state for mandated reporters of child abuse.

Another slide calls on participants to “Think about your feelings and personal biases and consider how they influence your conclusions and actions.”

While that may sound like discouraging the use of personal feelings and biases, the training doesn’t explicitly do so and seems at best confusing on this matter.

The training also presents lists of signs that may indicate a child is being abused. Many of the indicators are commonsense, such as bruises that resemble a fist, hand, or a belt buckle, and a child’s fear of going home.

Many, however, seem to have only a vague connection with abuse, such as being withdrawn, having low self-esteem, poor school performance, being “fearful of trying new things,” or seeking attention. Being “often hungry” or having clothes that are too large are listed among signs of neglect.

Poverty and “little parenting experience” are listed among “risk factors” for parents.

A certificate of completing a training on recognizing and reporting child abuse for mandated and permissive reporting in Pennsylvania presented by the University of Pittsburgh
A certificate of completing training on recognizing and reporting child abuse for mandated and permissive reporting in Pennsylvania presented by the University of Pittsburgh. (Screenshot via

The training acknowledges that the indices it lists may not be results of abuse, but it discourages the clearing-up of any confusion or misunderstandings before making a report.

In a short quiz, the training says, “if unsure whether abuse is occurring for a child, the first thing you should do is: a. Wait and gather more information; b. Speak with other professionals about your concerns; c. Report the suspicion immediately to [the state’s CPS reporting line]; d. Speak with the caretakers of the child.”

Reporting immediately was the correct answer.

This appears to be what happened to Oh.

‘Not at Fault Parent’

The allegation against Oh was eventually determined to be unfounded. But as he delved deeper into the issues of CPS, he found that many parents’ children had been taken away even in cases when the allegations against them were determined to be unfounded.

“How that works out is a thing called ‘not at fault parent,’” Oh said. “Someone knocks at your door at eight o’clock at night and they tell you they’re from DHS and they’re investigating an anonymous phone call that your husband is being abusive to your children. And upon several visits to you, they determine that those allegations against your fiance are unfounded, but, for the safety of your children and to be sure, they remove your children from your home.”

“The allegation, anonymous … was determined unfounded, yet your children are removed from your home and years later, they remain removed. And in the course of that removal, they become depressed, they do poorly in school, they talk about running away, then they’re placed in a reformatory school, even though they haven’t run away. … They’re recommended to get medication for their depression, for acting out. They are punished.”

More than a quarter of the children in the CPS system remain there for more than two years. The average time spent in the system is over 20 months.

Research has persistently showed that children coming out of the foster care system have substantially worse life outcomes than children in general, whether in education, employment, income, housing, health, substance abuse, or criminality. Moreover, children in the CPS system are most at risk of falling victim to sex trafficking. Not only do a number of these children end up being abused by their foster parents or government workers, but they are also systematically targeted for grooming by traffickers.

In fact, in marginal cases of neglect and abuse, where both keeping the family together and removing the child was a plausible option, the children that stayed with the parents did better than those removed, according to a 2007 study that mainly pertained to children aged 10-15 (pdf).

The CPS system, however, has incentives to involve itself in the lives of families as much as possible with an emphasis on taking children away.


Close to half of the about $11 billion in annual CPS funding is federal. The largest chunk of it (56 percent in 2017) is awarded under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, according to the ChildTrends research nonprofit (pdf).

Title IV-E funding can generally only be used to pay for foster care payments and CPS administrative costs tied to removed children under a certain poverty threshold, said Kristina Rosinsky, ChildTrends’ child welfare research scientist, in a phone call.

If children aren’t removed from poor families, the money flow ebbs.

CPS agencies can claim the funding for administrative costs even prior to removal, but only if the child “is at serious risk of removal from the home,” according to the federal Administration for Children and Families. That means the CPS agencies have an incentive to put a child on a pathway to foster care as soon as possible, in order to secure the funding.

While it’s likely that individual CPS investigators and caseworkers aren’t directly motivated by federal funding, the result seems to be the same.

“The person who removes three kids in a week, well, that person’s applauded. The person who prevents three children from being removed in a week, well that person’s called lazy,” said former Texas CPS Investigation Worker Carlos Morales, author of “Legally Kidnapped: The Case Against Child Protective Services,” in a 2013 YouTube video.

Pennsylvania’s DHS draws just 22 percent of its funding from the federal government, but, based on Oh’s account, seems to have the same issues raised with other CPS agencies.

The financial incentives are about to change in October, when the Family First Prevention Services Act comes into effect. Republicans in the House of Representatives slipped it into the 2018 budget bill to allow CPS agencies to use the Title IV-E funding on certain services that help prevent a child’s removal from its family and help families stay together. The services need to be “evidence-based,” Rosinsky said, and the agencies are now waiting to see which services the federal government will approve as such.


Another potential cause of problems in the CPS system is the substantial power of its employees. While the system differs from state to state, a social worker generally only needs to write an affidavit alleging abuse or neglect, with no further evidence, to obtain a removal order from a family court judge.

The workers can hardly be expected “to exercise self-restraint” when they’re sent on what they believe is a “mission to rescue innocent children from the scum of the earth—knowing that there will be no penalty for removal and hell to pay if she leaves the child home and something goes wrong,” said Richard Wexler, NCCPR executive director, in a 2008 document (pdf).

“The people who work for child protective services (CPS) agencies are not evil. But even the best of us would have trouble coping with nearly unlimited power and no accountability.”

Morales, too, indicated how elusive accountability was in his profession.

“You can always blame any kind of inaccuracies or terrible atrocities that occur on someone else,” he said.

Attempts at Change

Oh held a council hearing on issues with the DHS in February with more than 50 mothers, relatives, and experts signing up to make a statement.

“There were so many women testifying, it took so long that the stenographer got tired and had to stop,” he said.

Since then, even more parents and relatives have reached out to his office with complaints against the DHS.

On May 16, he put to a vote a resolution to set up a “Special Committee” to “investigate child separation in Philadelphia’s child welfare system” designed to recommend how to ensure compliance with the law, protect children, protect “due process rights of families,” and “prevent the unnecessary break-up of families.”

The resolution was defeated 7-10.

“City Council already has an existing task-force that meets regularly … and working to address the reduction of out of home placement for our City’s youth. Also, there are two standing committees with jurisdiction over these subject matters,” said Anne Kelly King, chief of staff for Councilman Mark Squilla, explaining in an email why he voted against Oh’s resolution.

But Oh said the task force is dealing with juvenile detention facilities—a separate issue. It’s true that the council has committees that oversee DHS, but the problems with the agency have been known for years, Oh said. The regular oversight apparently wasn’t enough to resolve them.

As some in the audience loudly objected to the outcome of the May 16 vote, Council President Darrell Clarke stepped down from his seat to make a statement: “We need to come up with some conclusion on this and we need to do it in a relatively expedited manner. … We will be reaching out among all the members so we can deal with this issue, so we can have some conclusion to this very, very emotional issue.”

The outreach and a conversation on the topic were to come the following week, he said.

But there was no outreach and no conversation, Oh said.

“I am not personally aware of any conversations on the topic,” King said. “But it is possible that task force members have been actively discussing the topic.”

A spokeswoman for Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who co-sponsored Oh’s resolution, deferred questions to him. All other council members didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The city’s DHS spokeswoman Heather Keafer said the state law “already provides objective standards for and judicial oversight for when a child may be separated from their parents.”

“Changing reporting requirements could conflict with state law and jeopardize our license,” she said in an emailed statement, referencing Figueroa’s previous comments on the matter.

Keafer declined to comment on any specific incident, citing the state law’s confidentiality requirements.

Pennsylvania’s DHS spokeswoman, Erin James, said in an emailed statement that “Children are only to be removed from their home when it is determined that their safety cannot be ensured in that environment, and a dependency judge must make the final determination, after finding that the county made reasonable efforts to keep the child(ren) in the home without jeopardizing the child(ren)’s safety.”

Update: The article has been updated with comments from a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.

Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated the number of child abuse reports in Philadelphia in the fiscal year 2018. The correct number is 5,522. The Epoch Times regrets the error.