The EthicistWe are becoming a society of snitches were anyone can make an anonymous report and cause misery to others without any accountability. The law and CPS protect the complainer's anonymity. Even this newspaper ethicist, who recognizes the harm from a false report, ends up saying that we should tolerate false reports.
Accusing the Accuser
By ARIEL KAMINER
Published: November 25, 2011
Someone wrote an anonymous letter to the Administration for Children’s Services stating that I had physically abused my children on various occasions in broad daylight in my neighborhood. With nothing to hide, I allowed the A.C.S. to interview my children and their caregivers, and I was cleared. Against all odds, I then found out who wrote the letter. I’m mad, but I’m reluctant to turn her in lest she face a harsh penalty. Should I pursue the case or let karma do its job? ANONYMOUS
Getting the rude surprise of a lifetime, being accused of monstrous behavior and potentially seeing your own children removed from your care, you might wonder how much retribution it’s possible to enact. Instead you ask how much forbearance it’s ethical to show. I bet the A.C.S. caseworkers don’t hear that question very often.
It’s a crime to file a false report, but prosecutors rarely go after isolated offenses. So as a practical matter it might not be worth your time to turn your accuser in. But as an ethical matter, there are good reasons for you to seek justice.
False reports don’t just terrify the accused (and their families); they further strain an already overburdened system, diverting help from children who most need it. If this woman intentionally deceived investigators just to spite you, you should report her — quick, before she does it to someone else.
But can you be sure? As Michael J. Fagan, an A.C.S. spokesman, pointed out, your accuser might have thought she was doing the right thing. Perhaps she saw something ambiguous and drew a mistaken conclusion. Perhaps she, too, hesitated to speak lest you face a harsh penalty. If you don’t know what her motivation was, and if there is a chance that your awful experience has colored your judgment about her, then let the matter drop.
A system like ours, in which we rely on one another to sound the alarm when children are in danger, is bound to produce a few false positives. If every mistaken accuser got called before a jury, who would ever speak up?
As explained below, our justice system is based on our right to confront the witnesses against us. If I were reporting genuine abuse, then I would be willing to make a police report under my name and testify in court, just like any other crime. In a real court, mistaken accusers are called before the jury just like any other witness, and that is how it has worked for 220+ years.
In my case, I eventually learned that the bogus CPS report was made by Julie Travers, but she was never held accountable for what she did.