The Dynamic of Shame in Interactions Between Child Protective Services and Families Falsely Accused of Child Abuse
Sabrina Luza and Enrique Ortiz*
ABSTRACT: The concept of a shame-based family system in
which parents shame their children was applied to the relationship between Child
Protective Services (CPS) and families accused of child abuse. Twenty
families who reported that they had been wrongly accused of child abuse
completed a questionnaire. Content analysis of the questionnaires
supported the hypothesis that the elements of a shame-based family system are
present in the relationship between CPS and the families they investigate.
The respondents indicated feelings of powerlessness, self- doubt, depression,
and isolation, and perceived the CPS as omnipotent, abandoning them, quickly
accusing them, and acting in emotionally harmful ways towards them.
Although child abuse has existed throughout history, only
recently has society recognized that children have a right to be protected from
their parents or guardians. Historically, the social values of the United States
have been a deterrent to intervention in behalf of the child. The family unit
was seen as private and inviolable and the parents were seen as having the right
to control and supervise their child. This slowly changed with the establishment
of the American Humane Association (AHA) in 1877 which was instrumental in
encouraging legislation to protect the child. Abusing parents were viewed in a
punitive light and were prosecuted under criminal codes. Protective services
were a form of law enforcement. However, this punitive view did not help solve
the socio-emotional causes of child abuse (Koerin, 1980).
In the 1930s the social work orientation became more apparent
with the enactment of the Social Security Act, which stated that protective
services would be delivered by public welfare agencies. This was a shift away
from punishment of parents to treatment of families. In the 1950s and 1960s much
information was disseminated by the AHA, and other disciplines have become
active in the formation of child abuse policies. In 1962 the Children's
Bureau met with a multidisciplinary team with the purpose of developing models
for state legislation for child abuse reporting laws; by 1967 the social policy
of child protection was formalized by the passage of child abuse reporting laws
by all fifty states (Koerin, 1980). In 1974 the Child Abuse and Treatment Act and
Title XX of the Social Security Act both established protective services and
treatment for abused and neglected children (Rodwell & Poertner).
The recent reporting laws state that a broad category of
professionals must report any suspected case of emotional, physical or sexual
abuse or neglect. This move has dramatically increased reported cases and has
improved treatment services for maltreated children and families (Besharov,
1985). However the pendulum may have swung too far — the cost being undue state
intervention into private family matters and grief to innocent parents and their
children. Although in the past the emphasis on the privacy and sanctity of
was partly to blame for the lack of protection of obviously abused children, the
laws as they stand now have shifted to the other extreme. Coercive intervention
into the family is unprecedented. If the social benefits outweigh the costs of
intrusion then the reduction of privacy and autonomy can be justified. However
this has not been the case (Stein, 1984).
While unwarranted interventions occur, the lives of children
who are in genuine need for intervention are endangered. As the overburdened
child protective (CP) worker allocates time to investigate an unfounded case, a
serious danger is left waiting. In addition, unsubstantiated accusations, with
the traumatic investigations that accompany them, cause much harm to innocent
families. The number of families who have undergone these unfounded and intrusive
investigations is much too high. According to the United States Center on
Child Abuse and Neglect, 60% of all reports of suspected child maltreatment turn
out to be unfounded (Besharov, 1985). In addition to the traumatic
investigation, families are often ordered to accept treatment under threat of
court action. About 50% of these cases are later found to be unsubstantiated (Besharov, 1985).
In the midst of a growing concern for children, a paradox has
developed in the establishment of new child protective legislation. On one hand
there is a deference for family privacy, and on the other, the problems of
children and families are attributed to parental abdication of their
responsibility. Thus, intervention into family life is prevalent (Melton, 1987).
The tradeoff is that too many innocent families get caught in the attempt to
identify abusive families. The mandatory reporting laws require many professions
to identify abuse and report it, but these identifications are often based on
minimal information. Therefore, reports of abuse are only judgment calls upon
which CPS begins an potentially intrusive investigation into family life (Stein,
However, legislative decisions regarding child abuse are
virtually undebatable due to the emotion-laden quality of abuse. Politically it
is considered unwise to support less intervention because one may be thought of
as a proponent of child abuse. Because the policies are seen as undebatable,
they divert attention away from practical policy problems such as over-reporting
of abuse cases which causes an overload in the system which leads to less
accurate investigations of children at risk and an increase in false
Not much emphasis has been placed on the negative effects of
a wrongful accusation. The bulk of research has explored the consequences of
not intervening in a possibly abusive situation. This reflects the lack of
concern for dealing with the issue of intrusion into the family. The research
that does explore this illustrates many ill effects on innocent families due to
coercive intervention. In many cases the effects are felt suddenly and without
warning. The CPS is capable of moving with swift and absolute authority.
simple accusation of abuse leveled at a parent or guardian can bring devastating
consequences for a family. People's lives are changed forever in an instant.
Children may be removed from their homes and contact with
their parents prohibited. In cases where more than one child is removed,
siblings are often separated, so that a child may lose contact with his whole
family. Sometimes there is no way to predict how long they will be separated.
The amount of time may be as short as the time it takes for a physical
examination, or it may be forever. Even if there is no separation a family may
undergo painful investigations before allegations of child abuse are determined
to be unfounded (Besharov, 1986). Accused parents are sometimes interrogated and
other times completely ignored in an investigation (Miller, 1988).
A family investigated for abuse is completely at the mercy of
their CP worker. Most false accusations take a family completely by surprise.
In this state of confusion a family is left defenseless and often has no idea of the
possible consequences that await them (Besharov, 1986; Miller, 1988). "People falsely accused feel so alone.
They tend to deny it ... that
something like this can happen in the United States" (Brown-Hawley, 1987).
These people are left feeling powerless. In a study of wrongfully accused
parents, Schultz (1986, 1989) found such effects as sleeplessness, weight loss,
nausea, night-terrors, and depression. His respondents also reported job loss,
divorce, reputational damage, and financial losses of such magnitude that
selling the family home was required to pay for legal and expert fees. Some,
however, did state that the investigation brought the family closer to one
another because of the hardships endured together.
The Dynamics of Shame
The qualities and emotions displayed by families wrongfully
accused of child abuse are strikingly similar to emotions demonstrated by adults
and children who feel shame. Shame is an internal, subjective experience.
shamed individual sees himself as inadequate, inferior, worthless and defective.
It affects the whole self-physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Shame is a
judgment of the self, and a failure of "being," rather than a failure
of "doing" (Potter-Efron, 1988).
As a dynamic social system, a family has a set of parenting
rules and beliefs upon which its child rearing style is based. In all families
the belief system forms the core of how children view themselves. Specifically,
in a family where shame exists, the child's core is one of a feeling of
inadequacy. The family's rules are shaming and abusive and the child
internalizes these rules. The child is shamed by the parents for failing to
attain the ideal. "Shame is the source of most of the disturbing inner
states which deny full human life" (Kaufman, 1980). Self-doubt, isolation,
alienation, and depression are some of the emotions linked with shame and are
experienced by children who have been shamed by their parents (Bradshaw, 1988).
"Shame-based" in part means the creation of shame in
others. The creation of shame in others is a way of avoiding feeling shame
oneself. It is a means of displacing an unwanted feeling onto another, thereby
protecting oneself from it. The feeling of shame is passed on to others and is
therefore referred to as "passing the hot potato" in psychiatric
literature. When someone feels shame, one reaction is to instill it in others.
"We achieve a personal comfort denied the bearer of these labels" (Nathanson,
1987). Parents pass the shame to children in shame-bound families. These shamed
children have many of the characteristics of families wrongfully accused of
child abuse. In our questioning of the origin of shame in these
families we began to wonder who was passing the hot potato to them. We began to
see parallels between passing shame within the family and passing the shame from
institutions to the family.
Shame and the Child Protection System
Much of the way families act within a shame-bound system
appear to be reflected in institutions. In expanding the shame-bound system
concept to include institutions, similar elements can be found. Those
institutions or agencies which act in loco parentis, taking on the
responsibility of the parent, seem to fit this schema best. One such institution
is the Child Protective Service (CPS) system. Is the shame-bound system of
families applicable to the relationship CPS systems have with families they
investigate for abuse? Because CPS agencies intervene into the zone of the
family when parents appear not to exercise proper control over their children,
the CPS agency takes on a parental role. We propose that the CPS system and the
family accused of child abuse form a shame-bound system much like the one
between the shaming parent and the shamed child. This exploratory study examined
the applicability of the shame-based system in which the CPS agency takes on the
shaming rules of the parent and the family accused of abuse or neglect takes on
the characteristics of the shamed child.
Although our study was confined to examining shame and the
interaction between families accused of abuse and CPS, as well as looking at the
possible effects on those families, we also explored what sources contribute to
the expression of shame through the CPS. This was necessary as part of the
development of our ideas regarding shame-based systems, and
served as a base for our exploration of the transmission of shame to the
families accused of abuse.
Legal policies affecting families of those suspected of abuse
have much to do with the way CP workers address the problem of abuse. With the
abrupt focus on the battered child syndrome (Kempe, Silverman, Steele,
Droegemueller, & Silver, 1962) states rushed to enact new legislation, much
of which is questionable in its constitutionality, to deal with the problem
(Lloyd, Melton, & Rogers, 1987; Melton, 1984; Melton, 1985). Feeling the
inadequacy to deal with the issue of child abuse, the states presented a
quick-fix approach apparent in their enactment of mandatory reporting laws.
However, the needed efforts to increase child protection have unfortunately
increased the number of innocent families damaged by false accusations. In
addition, there is little threat of penalty for those knowingly making a false accusation.
As the laws stand now, anyone can become a
victim of a false accusation. Because workers are overburdened with heavy
caseloads, many children who are being abused are lost in the shuffle (Rebstock,
1987). In effect, the states have passed the hot potato onto the CPS agencies in
order to alleviate their own feelings of inadequacy.
Child abuse laws are vague. Although intervention has
increased with the expansion of child protective efforts, policies governing
these interventions have not been made clear. Likewise, laws defining child
abuse and neglect lack clarification and specificity. "These laws set no
limits on intervention and provide no guidelines for decision making. They are
a prime reason for the system's inability to protect obviously endangered
children, even as it intervenes in family life on a massive scale" (Besharov,
Because legal policies give no guidelines to decision making,
the CP worker is given discretionary power regarding interventions. The CPS
organization is also set up to promote this discretionary behavior. The front
line workers act independently of one another and their supervision is based on
their reports of what they are doing rather than on direct observation by a
supervisor. Thus they each operate with a high degree of autonomy and are
to interpret policy as they choose (Gummer, 1979). It is particularly important
to have a standard for decision making in services such as child protection
because these services are involuntary — they are an extension of the power of the
state, and families are not given a choice to accept them or not. But because of
the individual interpretation of policies, decisions are made based on a CP worker's idiosyncrasies and hunches.
Rodwell and Poertner note: "With
differing standards, the same case will be opened by one worker and left
unattended by another. Some children needing protection will not be helped.
Others will be removed from their homes when no need for state protection
exists. Definitional disparity means that it is not possible to make the
professional distinction between a worker acting to protect versus needlessly
intruding because the basis for this judgment will never be clear."
This legislative granting of decision-making power is based on
a fundamental flaw that in the end decreases feelings of adequacy in the CP worker.
It assumes that workers need the freedom to make judgments about whether
or not a child needs protection. However, there is not sufficient scientific
knowledge to assess and predict future parental behavior (Besharov, 1985).
Gummer (1979) points out, "workers are asked to make professional decisions
about situations for which there is uncertain knowledge to guide the
decision." Too much responsibility is placed on the CP workers, especially
in light of the little scientific knowledge that is available. The workers are put in
a precarious position; they are given the power to decide
based on unrealistic expectations of their capabilities, and at the same time
are given only a few scientific tools with which to make
a "good" decision. The loose legal policies are a reflection of
society's over-ambitious expectation of the abilities of CP workers. Thus there
is a failure to provide specific guidelines (Besharov, 1985).
This conflict between what is expected and what knowledge is
actually available helps contribute to feelings of inadequacy in CP workers.
"To cope with this, workers resort to a variety of stress-reducing mechanisms
that enable them to make decisions with relative ease. While these mechanisms
are functional in terms of enabling the worker to make a decision, they have the
serious dysfunction of creating 'a spurious sense of certainty among social work
personnel concerning the wisdom of decisions reached' ..." (Gummer, 1979).
Passing Shame to Families
This sense of omnipotence is a way of relieving oneself of
the feelings of stress and inadequacy. Shame is described as a means of
displacing an unwanted feeling onto another, thereby protecting oneself from it.
By easily and quickly designating families as abusive, the CP workers pass
blame to families, relieving themselves of the stress of the decision-making procedure
and feelings of inadequacy imposed by vague laws and policies offering
few guidelines. The CP workers have an extremely difficult task. In addition to
the unreasonable caseload, insufficient funding, and few guidelines, they must
act as law-enforcement officer, judge, jury and scientist (Schultz, 1986).
is asking too much and contributes to feelings of inadequacy. Yet the high
expectations placed on them by society and legislators makes it difficult to
admit these feelings. One outlet is to pass these feelings on to families
accused of abuse.
The many elements of shame present in the parent-child system
can be applied to the CPS-family system. Emotional harm is inherent in a shaming
system. This can take many forms in the transmission from parent to child as
well as from the CPS to the wrongfully accused family. It can be evidenced by
the traumatic investigations undergone by the family. The thrust of these
investigations is to gain support for the accusation rather than to determine
the validity of the accusation (Hayden, 1988). In Schultz's (1986) study of 50
parents falsely accused of sexual abuse, 16% felt the CP worker was biased
toward supporting the charge prior to the investigation, 64% felt there was a
lack of skill in gathering legal evidence, thus, the innocent were caught in
the system rather than being quickly exonerated, and 34% felt there was not
enough training for the CP workers in protecting all clients' rights,
especially the parents' rights. "This tendency to assume the presence of
abnormality and then seek supportive evidence fosters 'overpathologizing,' that
is, the frequent misidentification of individuals as abnormal" (Faust &
The CPS also shames the falsely accused family even further
for having objections to the allegations. These objections are treated by the
CPS as even more proof of guilt. This reflects the parental shaming of the child
for having needs or feelings (Nielsen, 1988). The inability of the CP worker to
take into account the family's objections leaves the family feeling powerless
and frustrated, much like the shamed child.
Stemming from this mindset of guilty until proven innocent is
the very real abandonment the family experiences. The family is often socially
and economically abandoned because it is seen as guilty from the beginning.
parallels the parental shaming of the child through abandonment, which is a key
issue in shame-bound systems (Bradshaw, 1988). The CPS abandons families by
providing no victim welfare services (Schultz, 1986, 1989) and by failing to
offer apologies or reparations for the damages done to innocent families
(Hayden, 1988). The trauma to innocent families requires a wide variety of
services which are not provided. Mechanisms are also not provided to insure
effective and speedy appeal to accusations (Hayden, 1987). In the shame-bound
family system, the parent lacks energy and time to nurture the child (Nielsen,
1988). Likewise, the CPS lacks the energy and time to provide fully for the
family accused of abuse, especially after injury has been done to them through
the investigation. Thus isolation, due to this abandonment, is a primary feeling
of these families.
A collective denial that a problem may exist within the
system is also apparent in the CPS as it is in shame-bound family systems.
According to shame theory, to question is an act of disobedience and one is
shamed for it. One of the sacred rules of the shame-bound system is not to
question any of the rules, thus keeping the omnipotence of the shamer intact and
strengthening the denial system (Bradshaw, 1988). Perhaps this is part of
reason that those committed to bucking the system and bringing to light the
inefficiencies of the CP system are said to be siding with child abusers
(Hayden, 1988). The CP system makes it shameful to say anything negative about
its procedures. It fails to accept responsibility for the possible wrongs caused
to families wrongfully accused of abuse. Those who object to the erroneous
allegations, intrusive investigations and the quick-fix removal of
children from their families are shamed into being seen as proponents of abuse.
By the same token, those who expose the CP agencies for
inefficient attention to children at high risk may face persecution in the form
of demotion, which itself is a shaming technique. Sydney Schanberg (1985)
reports that the senior Supervisor of Child Services, Irwin Levin, was fined and
demoted for revealing workers' inadequacies in connection with the deaths of
children whose abuse cases had been mismanaged. In a shame-bound system the
belief is that it is better to shame another than to have one's own inadequacies
exposed. This seems to hold true for the CPS.
The CPS's preconceptions of the family as guilty before the
investigation is begun results in the use of such labels as "sick"
and "moral failures" (Melton, 1987). This is yet another element
present in shame-bound systems. Shamers use blame and labeling as a means of
inducing shame in others. Shame promotes a feeling of "being" no good
instead of "doing" something that is not good (Bradshaw, 1988). This
then promotes feelings of inadequacy.
By labeling families as sick or bad, CP agencies equate the
person and the behavior. It becomes more difficult for the family members
wrongfully accused of abuse to exonerate themselves. If presented with factual
evidence that would exonerate a family, the CPS will dismiss it because their
belief in the "badness" of the family is still intact. This lowers the
level of anxiety in the CP worker. By staunchly believing in the guilt of a
family, the CP worker then does not have to deal with the possibility of a
mistake. It is a means of ignoring accountability, much as the parent uses this
labeling as a means of alleviating himself from looking at his own faults.
also a means by which to control another, thus accruing power (Nielsen, 1988).
In a shame-bound family, the child is shamed for failing to
attain the ideal (Potter-Efron, 1988; Fossum & Mason, 1986). Likewise, the
family accused of abuse experiences shaming by the CPS and by society for
failing to reach the standard set for what families should be capable of doing
& Fogelman, 1987). Thus, feelings of self-doubt result. Since guilt is
presumed, the family is shamed by CPS for not being "good enough."
Similarly, the policy surrounding child abuse results in "symbolic
statements of the proper ordering of human relationships" (Melton, 1987).
This ideal of how the family should be, based on societal views, makes it
difficult for the family to feel adequate, especially when charged with an
accusation of child abuse which in society's view is among the most loathed of
Purpose of Study
We hypothesized that the Child Protective Service acts in a
shaming way toward people it investigates for abuse, in much the same way that a
parent shames a child in a dysfunctional family. The family takes on the
characteristics of the shamed "child" and the CPS acts as the shaming
"parent." In this study we wanted to correlate elements of the
dynamics of shame in families with the dynamics that occur between CP workers
and families they investigate for abuse.
Parents shame through abandoning their children by physically
leaving or being emotionally unavailable. Parents shame their children when they
deny their identity in some way such as labeling them, placing them in rigid
roles, denying their own problems, ignoring the child's problems, and acting in
shameless ways such as exhibiting omnipotence over their children. In outlining
the elements of shame in a shame-bound system we found that a shamed child
experiences and demonstrates isolation, powerlessness, self-doubt, inadequacy,
We hypothesized that the CPS demonstrates elements of shaming
by causing emotional harm to families, socially and economically abandoning
families, exhibiting omnipotence, and labeling families. We also hypothesized
that families accused of abuse will report qualities associated with
shame-isolation, powerlessness, self-doubt, inadequacy, and depression.
To examine whether these hypothesized dynamics existed
between families accused of abuse and CP workers, we constructed two sets of
questionnaires. Each questionnaire contained several questions to assess the
presence of each element in the shame-based system. The questions were a mixture
of open-ended questions and closed questions which used a Likert format. Some
questions were combinations of open and closed questions in which respondents
could answer "yes" or "no" and then elaborate if they
answered "yes." At the end of the questionnaire were questions asking
the respondents how they felt about answering the questionnaire and if there was
anything they would like to add. For many of the questions, the answer could
potentially evoke more than one theme of shame.
For the CP worker questionnaire, 19 questions were designed
to reflect hypothesized dynamics that would be displayed by a person who is
acting as a shaming parent. Unfortunately, as is explained below, we were unable
to administer these questionnaires as planned.
The questionnaire for the families wrongfully accused of
abuse included 27 questions to investigate the presence of shame. In addition,
the wrongfully accused were asked to describe the events and situations that led
to attention from the CP agency, to describe their feelings upon becoming aware
of being accused, and their feelings during the investigation. We thought that
giving the respondents a chance to express themselves freely would provide us
with additional information. The items on the wrongly accused questionnaire are
shown in Appendix A.
Items on both questionnaires were pretested on social work
students, in order to ascertain the clarity and neutrality of the questions.
few minor adjustments were made in terms of neutrality, otherwise, the
questionnaires remained unchanged.
The questionnaires were self-administered which allowed the
respondents to take as much or as little time as they chose. It also gave them
an opportunity to reflect and recall information. The questionnaires were mailed
out with instructions and confidentiality was guaranteed.
To obtain the CP worker sample we obtained approval from a
local CPS agency for administration of the questionnaires. A mutually
agreed-upon date for the actual survey-taking was sought, however contact was
delayed for two weeks. We were then told we had to get approval from the
Regional Social Service Manager and the Field Manager for Social Services.
contacted them and the project was approved. We therefore again contacted our
original contact who now told us that the agency needed approval from the agency
managers for a contact person inside the agency. Although the CPS agency was
aware of the time limits of the study, we became entangled in bureaucratic red
tape and were not able to administer the questionnaires. Whether the
bureaucratic delay was intentional is still unknown.
A snowball sampling method was used in selecting subjects who
had been wrongfully accused of abuse and investigated by the CPS. "Wrongfully accused of abuse" was defined as those who claimed to be
innocent. This includes those who were not charged, yet action such as removal
of the child took place, those who were charged and later the charges were
dropped or reversed to unfounded, and those who were charged and imprisoned yet
still claimed innocence.
We first contacted people belonging to the advocacy group
VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws). These names were supplied to us by Tulane
University's School of Social Work Director of Research, Dr. Robert Hayden.
These subjects resided in different states, from Oregon to Mississippi, as
well as in Louisiana. We hoped that by contacting these VOCAL members by
phone, other names of VOCAL members would be obtained. However, of these
people, all but one declined participation in the study, citing reasons such
as the desire to forget the incident, lack of interest, and a feeling of
futility regarding the effects of another study. More success was encountered
upon calling Michael Rebstock, District Liaison for Mississippi. Mr. Rebstock
was instrumental in giving us the name of the VOCAL chapter head in Virginia,
Barbara Bryan. Ms. Bryan was very helpful in facilitating the distribution of
the questionnaires to other wrongfully accused persons. Although she did not
provide the authors with names and addresses, she did distribute 50 questionnaires.
Of the 50 questionnaires sent out, 19 were returned. In
addition to these 19 questionnaires, one participant was interviewed by the
authors using the standard questionnaire and responses were recorded. Therefore, the total number of questionnaires received was 20.
from Virginia and the remaining six came from Tennessee, Louisiana, Maryland,
Kentucky, Mississippi, and Illinois.
Because the participants were obtained through VOCAL
members, they may have been predisposed to expressing negative views. This
limits the generalizability of our findings to all wrongfully accused
families. Another limitation is that there is no means of verifying whether
every participant is truly innocent.
The responses from the 20 questionnaires were analyzed. A
content analysis of the seven open-ended responses, as well as the open-ended
portion of the nine combination open/closed-ended questions, was done in order
to classify and code the responses according to our conceptual framework of
shame. The responses were coded for manifest content, that is, the responses
were scanned and recurrent words and phrases were recorded. Although the
manifest content was coded, rather than the latent content, the latent content
served as a guide to coding the manifest content. The recurrent phrases or
words were used as indicators of larger themes, some of which were the themes
of shame delineated previously and some of which were new themes. The same
question on different questionnaires evoked a variety of responses. Thus each questionnaire was scanned for recurrent phrases
which were classified under a theme. We found 14 different themes.
The presence or absence of indicators was recorded for each
questionnaire. If the same indicator was stated more than once within the same
questionnaire, it was simply recorded once. The total number of different
indicators for each theme was then tallied for each questionnaire. For
example, the four indicators for the theme of abandonment of the accused by
the CPS are (1) providing the accused with few rights, (2) ignoring objections
stated by the accused, (3) falling to listen to the accused person's side of
the story, and (4) refusing to conduct an investigation while taking action
against the family.
The presence or absence of each indicator was recorded for
all 14 themes for each questionnaire. If all four indicators were present for
one of the themes in a questionnaire, the number 4 was recorded; if there were
three present, the number 3 was recorded, and so on. This yielded a specific
number of indicators for each theme for each questionnaire. We then determined
the frequency and percentage of questionnaires that contained each number of
indicators for each of the 14 themes. We also calculated the cumulative
Unlike the open-ended questions, the closed-ended questions
targeted specific themes; therefore, the themes were predetermined by the
questions. Several questions targeted each theme. Many of these themes were
identical to those themes found in the open-ended responses. The questions
targeting a specific theme were indicators of that theme.
The presence or absence of indicators was tallied for each
theme across all questionnaires. For questions that supplied "yes"
or "no" answers, "yes" would indicate the presence and
"no" would indicate the absence of the indicator for a specific
theme. For questions with Likert scales, a response of "none" or
"very little" was coded as the absence of that indicator, while a
response of "moderate," "very much," and "extreme" was coded as a
presence of that indicator. The total number of indicators for each theme was
then recorded for each questionnaire. For example, the indicators for the
theme of powerlessness are three questions: "How much control did you
feel you had over the investigation?," "How much difficulty did you
have in dealing with your emotions as a result of the investigation?,"
and "Did the investigation change any plans you had for your family at
the time it occurred?" The number of indicators present was recorded
under the theme of powerlessness. This was repeated for each theme and for
each questionnaire, as was done with the open-ended questions. Likewise,
percentages were obtained from the frequencies.
The indicators, which were phrases or words stated by
respondents in open-ended questions, seemed to form separate groupings. These
groupings were then classified under appropriate themes which reflected the
essence of the indicators. Some themes were actual elements of shame proposed
previously. Other themes that had not been proposed were also found.
presents the 14 themes along with their indicators for the open-ended
questions. Table 2 shows the cumulative percentages for these themes.
The themes obtained from the closed-ended questions were
similar. The indicators for the closed-ended questions were the questions
themselves. Table 3 lists the eight themes obtained from the
questions and Table 4 indicates the cumulative percentages for these themes.
The themes found for both the open-ended and closed-ended
questions in part supported our initial proposition suggesting the
applicability of a shame-based system to the interaction between the CPS and
families it accuses of child abuse.
The four hypothesized elements of shame within the CPS were
causing families emotional harm, abandoning the families, exhibiting
omnipotence, and labeling families. The first three of these themes were
represented in the groupings of indicators found in responses. We were unable
to examine the theme of labeling since there were no questions formulated to
assess labeling in the questionnaire developed for the families accused of
abuse. The questionnaire for the CPS had contained items assessing labeling
but since we could not administer this questionnaire the presence of labeling
is unknown. However, certain indicators under the theme of accusatory posture
of the CPS are related to labeling. One indicator, "presumed guilt of the
accused," is a precursor of labeling the family.
This same indicator, "presumed guilt," is a form
of emotional harm since it gives way to traumatic, intrusive methods such as
removal of a child based on little or no evidence. Presuming an accused
individual is guilty also leads to another element of shame, abandonment.
CPS seemed to offer almost no reparations to wrongfully accused families.
The elements of shame are not mutually exclusive but
overlap, and many of those elements were found in several thematic categories.
For example, the concept of emotional harm was not only supported by the
indicators under that theme, but also by indicators within other thematic
categories. "Lack of rights given to the accused," and
"ignoring the objections of the accused" are two indicators
that not only reflect the shaming theme of abandonment, but also the theme
of emotional harm. The proposed theme of the CPS's omnipotence was also
indicated by responses such as "CPS lacks accountability" and
that "the CPS does not recognize its inefficiencies."
The elements of shame proposed to exist within the accused families
were isolation, powerlessness, self-doubt, depression, and inadequacy.
these, the themes of isolation, powerlessness, self-doubt, and depression
were indicated by the responses. Table 1 shows the indicators in these
three themes. Inadequacy was not a recurrent phrase in the responses to
the open-ended questions and was not supported. The proposed theme of
depression was recurrent in the responses, and served as an indicator of
the larger theme of emotional pain. The proposed themes of isolation,
powerlessness, and self-doubt were supported in this study.
The intensity of the themes is shown through the cumulative percentages
of indicators pertaining to each of the 14 open-ended themes (Table
example, under emotional pain, 5% of the questionnaires had at least five
indicators, 25% had at least three indicators, and 95% of the
questionnaires had at least one indicator. This suggests that many
respondents felt mild emotional pain and a few felt extreme emotional
pain, however almost all (95%) felt emotional pain to some degree.
Of the themes related to shame, the following demonstrated high
percentages: isolation, in which 85% of the respondents stating at least
one indicator, accusatory posture with 95%, abandonment with 95%,
omnipotence with 45%, and emotional harm with 55%. The theme of self-doubt showed a low percentage of 20% of the questionnaires having at least
one indicator. Likewise, the theme of powerlessness showed a low
percentage of 25%. However, as is seen below, the percentages for these
two themes for the closed-ended questions are much higher. This may be due
to the fact that there were more closed-ended than open-ended questions
assessing the two themes. Powerlessness may also be an emotion that is not
readily discussed, but will be acknowledged if directly questioned about
New themes shown in Table 2 were emotional pain, with 95% of the
respondents giving one or more indicators, anxiety about the future (40%),
negative effect (60%), desire to fight back (85%), gaining a stronger
support system (65%), and fighting back (85%). This suggests that
respondents gained the support of others or became closer to their family
as a result of fighting an outside enemy, the CPS. Despite these outcomes,
families accused of abuse seemed to endure not only components of shame, but also other negative effects and emotions which were
One interesting theme was the CPS's helpfulness to families accused of
abuse which was indicated by 25% of the respondents. A closer examination
of the statements of helpfulness recorded on the questionnaires indicated
that some CP workers were helpful by informing the accused of the
happenings and by giving information about CPS's training and background.
However, in this particular instance the workers' jobs were threatened by
the District Attorney. Another helpful worker recorded accurate and honest
reports of a family but was told by supervisors that she must support the
accusation. Yet another worker who had investigated a case and recorded it
as "unfounded," was fired because he had not conformed to the
system. These examples display a willingness for honesty in the worker but
coercive tactics by the CPS system toward these workers. Coercion is not
only demonstrated toward the families accused of abuse, but also toward
all who may stand in the way of the system. Some other responses indicated
this by stating that friends of the accused who were to testify on behalf
of the accused, as well as lawyers who wished to represent the accused,
were threatened by the CPS. This coercion is highly indicative of one of
our proposed elements of shame, omnipotence.
One of the indicators of abandonment, "CPS conducted no
investigation," appeared in 60% of the questionnaires. Not only does
a traumatic investigation of a wrongfully accused family result in the
characteristics of shame within that family, but the lack of an
investigation while action is being taken against the family also leads to
these characteristics. Many respondents indicated that their request for
an investigation was ignored or denied.
Of the indicators for emotional pain, anger was the predominant emotion
for the respondents (75%), with high percentages for shock (60%), and hurt
(30%). Depression, which was one of the proposed elements of shame only
received 15%. It appeared that the other more acute emotions overrode the
more chronic emotion of depression.
The questionnaire also provided information about the nature of the
alleged abuse. The abuse accusations consisted of sexual (40%), physical
(24%), neglect (24%), and unknown (12%). The children involved were natural
children (70%), foster children (10%), step children (5%), and
grandchildren (10%). The accusations were reported by a variety of people
including relatives, doctors, and the child, but with the largest
percentage being former spouses (25%). More attention needs to be paid to
custody battles and screenings must be designed to filter out vindictive
The outcomes of the allegations were also reported; 25% of the
respondents were imprisoned, 30% had the charges dropped or reversed to
"unfounded," and 60% had their children removed or all
visitation rights denied. This 60% figure suggests that removal of the
child may often be the initial intervention rather than a well thought-out
recourse after other interventions have failed, as CPS policy dictates.
Even if the respondents were assumed to be guilty of the allegations, it
is debatable whether the drastic step of removal of the child from home or
termination of visitation is warranted and whether this is truly in the
best interest of the child. One can only imagine the harm done to the
child and the family if the child is removed due to a wrongful accusation.
The themes reflected by the closed-ended questions which are associated
with the proposed elements of shame are powerlessness, self-doubt,
accusatory posture, abandonment, and omnipotence of CPS. Other themes, not
specifically related to shame, are negative effects on families, positive
effects on families, and objections to CPS's methods. Whether these themes
are supported is shown by Table 4, which gives the percentages of
indicators pertaining to each of the eight closed-ended themes.
The percentages were high for at least one indicator for all eight
themes. Powerlessness, which achieved a relatively low percentage for the
open-ended themes, resulted in 100% of the respondents stating that at
least two indicators were present for them. Self-doubt was another theme
receiving a low percentage for the open-ended questions; however, 70%
indicated a presence of at least one indicator for the closed-ended
questions. As can be seen in Table 4, the presence of all themes in almost
all of the questionnaires supports the hypothesized finding of elements of
The other theme of positive effects is in keeping with the theme of
becoming closer which was found in the open-ended questions. It seems that
many family members supported one another while enduring what was often
referred to as "the nightmare." Objections to the investigation,
or lack of investigation, were endorsed by 95% of the respondents. However
these objections were ignored by the CPS in a majority of the cases.
The themes which were identical in both the open-ended and closed-ended
questions corresponded well in terms of the percentages. Powerlessness and
self-doubt were the two themes with some disparity. The closed-ended
themes received slightly higher percentages than did the identical
open-ended themes. This may have occurred because open-ended questions do not evoke a specific answer,
whereas a closed-ended question forces a respondent to make a choice.
In the questionnaires, we investigated the respondents' perceptions of
the intrusiveness of CPS intervention and examined whether the dynamics of
shame fit the interaction between the CPS and families it investigates for
abuse. Although this was an exploratory study, our results support the
hypothesis that many elements of the shame-bound system exist in this
Our sample consisted of members of an advocacy group or persons having
some relationship with that advocacy group; 85% of our sample is presently
"fighting back" as best they can against the CPS and future
interventions into their lives and the lives of others. Fighting back
against a shaming source is in itself a sign that shame is being given
back to the source of that shame. We wonder how many potential respondents
did not answer and return the questionnaires due to the debilitating
effects of shame. Some of the people we approached for participation in
the study replied that they did not wish to participate because they were
choosing instead to forget about their interactions with the CPS.
There seems to be another emerging pattern when a comparison is made of
the questions in the questionnaire which deal with past events and
questions which refer to the present or the future. A time element may be
involved in the dynamic of shame. It is possible that as the time between
the shaming event and the present increases, the shame of that event may
be felt with less intensity.
For reasons of comparison, we would like to have obtained a sample of
families who were not related to an advocacy group. However, a family
which is isolated and is feeling confusion and shame about their situation
is highly unlikely to be easily found by researchers. Who will know the
story of a family that does not find the support or the resources to fight
Many respondents used the questionnaire to express angry feelings.
presented some difficulty in scoring because respondents would stray from
the subjects of the questions. It became time consuming to scan the
questionnaires for indicators of themes for the open-ended questions.
Perhaps less time would have been spent had we been able to perform face-to-face
interviews with the subjects.
It is unfortunate that interviews with the CP workers could not be
coordinated. Interviews with them could have provided a rich source of
information and brought up issues we could not have predicted, as occurred in the questionnaires
of the falsely accused families. One thing we learned about trying to
interview state workers is that it is best to approach such a bureaucracy
with ample time. Procedures for approval of such a project as this one
takes much time.
We had hoped to bring to light some of the dynamics between the two
parties, balancing a view of their interactions. We felt it was important
to do so, considering the emotionally charged atmosphere which surrounds
the topic of child abuse and state intervention into the family. Falsely
accused persons have made strong allegations against the CPS, charging the
system with terrible abuses of power. The statement, "The CPS used
power to instill fear" illustrates the omnipotence with which the
system operates. What can justify such tactics? Perhaps this and other
questions could have been answered from the CP worker's point of view, had
we been able to get information from them.
We were hoping that information about the use of self would have
emerged from interviews with the CP workers. Such information could have
been useful in piecing together the dynamics of such a system. CP workers
are caught in a system which does not support them. On the one hand,
legislation demands a solution to the problem of abuse in the family.
the other hand, when the legislation was passed, the problem was
oversimplified and there was little knowledge about how to deal with the
problem. Also, society's commitment to the problem is waning, as is
evidenced by an unwillingness to fund programs (Stein, 1984).
When so many families are caused so much suffering, something is wrong.
The mission of the Child Protection System is to protect children. Yet
more than half of all cases reported to CPS "should not have come to
the attention of the protective systems in the first place" (Stein,
1984). Where do the answers lie? Some short-term approaches have been
proposed. Advocacy groups stress limiting the power of CPS to intervene in
family life. It has become common knowledge that protective service
workers need lighter case loads. Schultz (1986) suggests stricter
definitions of what kinds of sexual trauma warrant state intervention,
more money for state agencies, and better legal training for workers,
among other things. Mia Pringle (Vallender & Fogelman, 1987) proposes
that far-reaching changes need to occur; that society needs to change its
views on parenthood, childhood and the relationship between professionals
and parents. What is certain is that the way society treats its children
and their families needs to change. The persecutive and shaming attitude
of "getting the offender" is still pervasive, and unless far
reaching changes occur, many innocent people will continue to suffer.
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We would like to thank Dr. Robert Hayden, our research supervisor for introducing us to the subject of
false accusations of child abuse and for helping us with
our literature search. His encouragement and wisdom added to our enthusiasm in
conducting the research, while his support and guidance pushed us along the
path to completion.
We would also like to thank Michael Rebstock for providing us with insight into the experiences of people
falsely accused, and for supplying us with names of others in similar
Barbara Bryan of Virginia deserves special mention for
helping us to distribute our questionnaires to falsely accused people. We
greatly appreciate all of her informative suggestions and support.
We also wish to thank all of the anonymous respondents to our questionnaire, who provided the data
for our project.