Over the weekend, the Seattle Times reported that the state of Oregon released new information showing that Child Protective Services (CPS) had investigated claims of child sexual abuse against Ed Murray in the 1980s. The investigator concluded that the allegations from Jeff Simpson, Murray's former foster child, were founded.
In response, Murray's lawyer, Katherine Heekin, wrote a letter to the Times saying that Oregon CPS "is supposed to err on the side of believing a child's accusations."
"The agency is not responsible for judging sex abuse cases," Heekin continued. "It merely investigates allegations of sex abuse. In contrast, law enforcement is responsible for determining whether or not a crime may have happened. Here, there was no indictment, no charges filed, no conviction, and no crime.”
On Monday evening, Murray announced he would not step down, as some mayoral candidates and council members have called for him to do.
First, as the Seattle Times story mentioned, CPS cases have a different standard of evidentiary proof than criminal ones. For criminal cases, it's "beyond a reasonable doubt." For CPS investigations, it's a lower standard: whether there's "reasonable cause to believe the abuse or neglect occurred."
But that doesn't mean that CPS errs on the side of believing kids' allegations as a matter of practice.
According to the latest report from the federal Children's Bureau, part of the Office of the Administration for Children and Families, Oregon received 66,100 referrals for child neglect or abuse cases in 2015. Of those 66,100, 38,063—or 57.6 percent—were screened out. (The national average for the percentage of referrals that were screened was 41.8 percent.)
Past the initial screening process, 39,009 Oregon children in 2015 received investigations or alternative responses for child abuse and neglect, and just 11,090 of those cases were found to be substantiated. That same year, Oregon counted 838 victims of child sexual abuse, or eight percent of abuse victims overall. Oregon did not report any intentionally false allegations.
Nationally, the Children's Bureau found that of the 7.2 million children who were referred to CPS for child abuse or neglect, 47 percent received an investigation or an alternative response. Of the 7.2 million, just 9.4 percent were determined to be victims, and 5.6 percent received post response services. The Children's Bureau also reported that mothers made up the highest percentage of reported perpetrators; foster parents made up just 0.2 percent of reports.
Researchers cite numerous reasons why abuse investigators may not believe a child's accusations. Kathryn Becker Blease, an assistant professor of psychology specializing in child abuse at Oregon State University, told The Stranger that, "from a scientific and safety perspective," they should err on the side of believing children because most accusations are true. "But the data don't show that that actually happens."
Part of the reason why the data doesn't reflect an institution that "err[s] on the side of believing a child's accusations," Becker Blease says, is because perpetrators deliberately target victims who don't make good witnesses.
"Perpetrators tell us themselves that sometimes they purposely involve kids in criminal behavior and drugs because it makes it that much harder for kids to come forward," Becker Blease said.
The same conundrum afflicts child sexual abuse cases that actually make it to court, though few do.
"Just getting one of these cases to a courtroom, to a jury, where they can hear the evidence, is so unbelievably rare, and it's so unbelievably difficult," Randy Burton, founder of Justice for Children, a national nonprofit that provides legal resources for abused kids, told The Stranger. "You're presumed, by courts, incapable of testifying on your own behalf if you're under the age of 7, because they say most children are not competent to testify below that age. Then there's vast categories of abuse where it's impossible to get those allegations in front of someone else unless you get a rape kit."
"Perpetrators don't do this in front of a soccers stadium full of fans," Burton continued. "They do it in utter secrecy."
A handful of studies published over the last 30 years also suggest that getting a child sexual abuse case accepted for prosecution may be more difficult for male victims. Another 2012 study published in Sex Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment came to the same conclusion, suggesting that the disparity between male and female child sex abuse outcomes could be explained by severable variables, including the fact that boys are less likely to tell someone about abuse. When they do, the study reported, it's more likely to happen after someone has witnessed concerning behaviors from the child—in other words, acting out—and those same behaviors then could make boys seem "as a less credible or sympathetic witness by a prosecutor."
Additionally, the study found that when boys did disclose, they were more likely to tell someone about abuse in response to questions about the possibility of abuse in the first place—which, for jurors, could suggest that the victim was "coached." Finally, if a boy had been exposed to porn, a jury might see that behavior as a result of watching porn, not abuse.
Becker Blease, a former foster parent in Washington State, said she also understood foster parents' fear that they might be the subject of false allegations of sexual abuse from traumatized kids who act out. But false allegations are rare—somewhere between 2 and 10 percent—and there's no data on the rate of foster children specifically who make false allegations. Becker Blease said she found Heekin's comments to be "dangerous" and "irresponsible" given the context.
"It's one thing to defend yourself as an individual; it's another thing as an elected official to undermine the integrity of the whole Child Protective Services system," Becker Blease said. "You're essentially saying the system is tilted in favor of believing the kids, but there are a whole lot of vulnerable kids out there who did not have that experience, and you've undermined the integrity of all those kids who are making disclosures."
Both Becker Blease and Burton say CPS and the courts have gotten better at handling child sexual abuse cases. But according to Burton, who founded his organization in the same year that Jeff Simpson, Murray's former foster son, made his first accusation, the 80s were a rough time for CPS abuse cases. Federal funding for CPS mandated that the agencies try to keep families together—even if, Burton said, that came at the expense of the child victim whose perpetrator was a parent. Burton helped change those rules in 1997, when Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act.
"[CPS] is a civic agency that's there for the purpose of removing children from dangerous homes, and they've got this imperative to try and preserve the family," Burton said. "And those two imperatives—can't save the family and can't protect the child—in the case of sexual abuse has been referred to in some articles as professional schizophrenia."
An agency concluding that allegations were "founded" despite that professional schizophrenia likely signifies a strong case, Burton said.