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 the family 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 child in 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, 1984).

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 accusations.

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.  A 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.  The 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, 1985).

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 free 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).  As 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).  This 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 & Ziskin, 1988).

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.  This 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 the 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.  It is 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 (Vallender & 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 transgressions.

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, and depression.

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.  A 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.  We 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.  Fourteen came 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.

Data Analysis

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 percentages.

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.  Table 1 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 closed-ended 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.

Open-ended Questions

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.  The 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.  Of 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 2).  For 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 it.

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 far-reaching.

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 false accusations.

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.

Closed-ended Questions

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 shame.

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 relationship.

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 back?

Many respondents used the questionnaire to express angry feelings.  This 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.  On 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 situations.

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.

* Sabrina Luza and Enrique Ortiz are social workers and can be contacted at 2716 Helena Ave., Kenner, Louisiana 70062.  [Back]

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