Should NH make it a misdemeanor to intentionally make false reports of child abuse and neglect?
Sometimes, reporting instances of child abuse can mean the difference between life and death for children in troubled homes. But what about when someone makes a report of child abuse in bad faith? For example, what if a relative falsely reports that a family member is abusing or neglecting their children, simply to humiliate them? A bill before the New Hampshire Legislature would seek to punish such bad faith reports.
Changes to the Child Protection Act
HB 108, introduced by Rep. Jim Spillane (R-Deerfield), makes two notable changes to New Hampshire’s Child Protection Act. First, the bill would allow a report of child abuse or neglect to include the name and contact information of the person making the report. This bill then makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally make false reports of child abuse and neglect. The name of a person making a report would remain confidential unless the report is "made in bad faith or maliciously and with intent to cause harm." Someone who makes a bad faith report could also be subject to civil penalties, which could allow the subject of the false report to claim damages.
Preventing bad faith reports
Unlike many other states, New Hampshire does not penalize individuals who knowingly make false statements of suspected child abuse to the relevant department, courts, law enforcement agency or social service agency. HB 108 would establish consequences for those who would make false reports in order to harass parents or otherwise weaponize the system. Importantly, proponents note that those who make good faith reports which turn out to be erroneous would be protected—their names would remain confidential on reports and they wouldn’t be guilty of a misdemeanor.
At the first public hearing for this bill, Rep. Spillane told the committee that the bill was inspired by a constituent who was being harassed by multiple false reports from their ex’s new girlfriend in an attempt to sway a divorce case. When asked how it would be determined that a report was made “in bad faith,” Spillane explained that it would be the result of a “preponderance of evidence.” In other words, if there was an obvious pattern of an individual making a series of false reports, they might run afoul of the law.
Supporters of similar laws in other states also argue that bad faith reports waste limited state resources, so this law would help focus state resources on children truly at risk.
Concerns of a “chilling effect”
Others worry that this new law could have a “chilling effect” on those considering coming forward to make a report. Reporters of child abuse might worry that their names could be unsealed, if their report was ruled to be “in bad faith.” This could reveal their identity to the accused abuser, creating an opportunity for confrontation or retaliation.
There are also concerns that good faith abuse reports can follow a similar pattern to bad faith reports; a neighbor might first notice that something seems amiss and call in a report, and then call in subsequent reports as they notice other problems. It might be hard to determine if the neighbor’s intentions were “good” or “bad” in this case.
Some also worry that people might hear about the law through the grapevine but miss the detail that only knowingly false reports would be punished. In other words, someone who suspects abuse is taking place might hesitate to report it if they are not 100% certain.
Opponents, who have struck down similar bills in the past, worry that HB 108 would ultimately deter people from reporting abuse or neglect, which in turn would have real world consequences for vulnerable youth.
Voice your opinion
The New Hampshire House gave this bill a thumbs up, meaning the legislation now makes its way to the New Hampshire Senate for consideration. There will be a public hearing on the bill on April 12 in Room 101 of the Legislative Office Building in Concord at 9 AM. If you wish to make your voice heard for or against this proposal, attending the public hearing is a great place to start. You can find a handy how-to guide about how to present at a public hearing on our website, here.