How not to handle a child abuse accusation

For every time social workers get it right there are cases where they get it wrong. For example, social workers went to a Desert Hot Spring home to investigate an abuse claim. An anonymous person told police that they suspected John David Yoder of molesting the two foster boys in his care. The person stated that Yoder had pictures of boys in their underwear on his computer.

That is a rather specific accusation, and as they should, the state sent social workers to investigate. The social workers interviewed both boys.  The boys denied any abuse. The social workers did find, however, the photos mentioned by the reporter. The photos did not depict the foster boys, but we’re of other children. The social workers reportedly found the photos “concerning,” yet did nothing to follow-up. Instead they declared the case “inclusive.” They left the two boys in Yoder’s custody. It seems simple.


Today, that same parent, John David Yoder, sits behind bars, a suspect in what officials have called one of the worst child pornography rings in Southern California in recent years. Yoder and three other suspects have been accused of victimizing as many as 15 children in Desert Hot Springs, including some of the boys that lived with him. Yoder was arrested in February as result of a separate investigation by law enforcement in Nevada. The charges he now faces are nearly identical to the allegations that were reported to the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services shortly before Christmas.

If social workers had acted differently in December, the boys in Yoder’s home could have been rescued six weeks earlier.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said the biological mother of one of the boys, whose name is being withheld to protect his identity. “If they found the pictures, how could they let that go? How could they not look further into it? They could have saved him — all of the boys — a lot sooner.”

I am hesitant to jump to conclusions about people having photos of children in their underwear. I live with kids. It is not uncommon for them to lounge in their underwear. Sooner or later someone will take of picture of them in that state. That does not mean they are being abused. Yet when someone calls with a specific allegation of molestation and states where potentially illegal images can be found in someone’s home and one finds them exactly where they were alleged to be, should that not prompt greater investigation? Should you not follow-up on the case later on to see what is happening? How is it that no one thought to dig deeper? The article offers some explanation:

In Riverside County, and throughout California, the overwhelming majority of Child Protective Services (CPS) investigations end with unsubstantiated allegations, just like the Yoder investigation did. Riverside County social workers investigate tens of thousands of parents each year, but more than three-fourths of those investigations end up with either “inconclusive” or “unfounded” findings. This pattern is even more prevalent in investigations of foster homes, where the county has an even larger responsibility to protect wards of the state, but only four percent of complaints are substantiated.

In almost all of these cases, the substance of investigations is kept confidential, making it difficult to know if there are other cases where social workers overlooked alarming evidence of abuse. Social services officials operate in near-impervious secrecy, which is bolstered by some of the nation’s strictest confidentiality laws, making public oversight and accountability of individual child welfare investigations almost impossible.

These protections were put into place to keep people from snooping into children’s records. Yet they also provide an easy cover for mistakes like this case. It is so easy to bury these cases among the numerous complaints. Unless the person is accused again and someone goes digging, as the Desert Sun did, it is possible for the information to never come out.

If that is not bad enough, California gives foster children a limited window to complain and sue:

But for every case like that one, there are more that were never filed, Singleton said. Foster children have a year-long window to sue the government, but many winnable cases don’t surface until after that window has closed.

That happens, at least in part, because Social Services guards the findings of child welfare investigations so closely. Agencies are able to hide their own mistakes behind a privacy wall that is intended to protect children — not the government — [Gerald] Singleton said.

“If I was going to change one thing about this system, it would be to dramatically change the confidentiality requirements,” Singleton said. “The way it functions now, confidentiality has really become a veil of secrecy, so there is no meaningful form of outside oversight. In this society, we have the press to act as a watchdog, and attorneys who bring lawsuits. But in this system neither of those things can happen because almost nobody has the relevant information.”

More curious is that California’s prevents any mention of the information, even situations in which the party asking questions already knows the information:

There are at least 17 states where CPS officials would be free to answer questions about their investigations in circumstances similar to the Yoder case, according to a state-by-state analysis of confidentiality laws, which was performed by the federal government and analyzed by The Desert Sun. In some of these states, details from the Yoder investigation would be unsealed because he was arrested. In other states, Social Services could answer questions about the case because The Desert Sun already knew Yoder had been investigated.

But in Riverside County, neither of those exemptions exist. Despite public interest in knowing what went wrong in the Yoder investigation, these answers are forbidden by law.

That is so contrary to the best interest of children that it makes no sense why anyone would have proposed such a policy. It is obvious how easily this could go wrong. Here you have someone who is essentially a serial abuser who could have had numerous reports made against him that no one would or could know about because of this policy. Had Yoder not been caught, imagine what would have happened if each new case proved “inclusive.”

It is worth asking whether these protections are internal as well. Are social workers blocked from seeing this information? If they ran Yoder’s name, would the prior complaints register or would they be sealed?


2 thoughts on “How not to handle a child abuse accusation

  1. Pingback: How not to handle a child abuse accusation –

  2. As a former CPS employee and social worker who investigated child abuse allegations, I can say that confidentiality laws need to be changed. Current laws make adequate oversight of CPS agencies nearly impossible. However, raising the wall of silence carries its own risks. the laws exist, first and foremost, to protect the (allegedly) abused children from any potential harms that might come from the allegations being revealed. this can range anywhere from social stigma to harassment, to further abuse. But the laws protect more than just children. For instance, they also protect the accused, especially those who are not guilty and/or falsely accused.

    it is not uncommon for people to make child abuse allegations as a means of harassment. Frequently one parent will falsely accuse the other parent in order to harass them, to stop visitation, to gain custody, etc. making these types of allegations public can damage reputations, employment prospects, etc. Permitting anonymous reports to be made to hotlines makes it way to easy to falsely accuse someone and/or to use CPS as a weapon of harassment. Even when the caller is known and the report can be shown to be false, no legal action will be taken against the reporter because to do so might discourage legitimate reports from being made.

    There are some very legitimate reasons why confidentiality laws exist. Unfortunately, there are also some very legitimate reasons for changing them. They prevent adequate public oversight of CPS agencies. They may prevent communication between agencies. They also permit CPS agencies to be used as weapons of harassment. They protect abusers. They permit agencies to do sloppy work and even act illegally.

    While I advocate change, I also advocate caution. any change will have both positive and negative consequences, not only for children, but also for the adults involved, CPS agencies, and the entire juvenile system. I’m not sure that allowing the press access is a good idea, but I’m not willing to rule it out. A better idea would probably be to create an oversight agency that operates independently of CPS with complete investigative authority that not only handles complaints, but also monitors day-to-day operations and has total access to all records.

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