Op-ed column: False child abuse claims must be investigated

The removal of more than 400 children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter D
Jon Krause/Newscom
Jon Krause/Newscom

The removal of more than 400 children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS) compound in Texas made front-page news for several days in April. However, a follow-up Associated Press story revealing that the phone call that initiated the raid was a hoax got short shrift.

Rozita Swinton, who has been arrested and charged with misdemeanors more than once for making false phone calls about child abuse, has been questioned by Texas Rangers and may be the person who made the phone call.

Few people are ever arrested for filing false child abuse reports, even though it is a crime. In New York state, it is a class A misdemeanor (Penal Code Subdivision 3, subsection 240.50). I am a news junkie, perusing several newspapers and blogs each day as well as monitoring many talk shows, and I have only heard of one person ever getting arrested for making a false report of child abuse. That was a Glens Falls resident, already on probation for another crime.

One reason why few people are arrested for making false claims of child abuse is that those in authority just don’t take the problem seriously enough. They don’t even take it seriously when one man has had 12 false reports filed against him, apparently all by the same person.

Local case

A few weeks ago, I listened with incredulity as Al Roney of WGY interviewed Keith Ferguson of Valley Falls in Rensselaer County.

Ferguson has been investigated 12 times in the past two years by the county’s Child Protective Services unit following reports that he had sexually abused his children. None of the investigations have turned up any abuse, and it’s quite obvious that the anonymous phone calls to the child abuse hotline are stemming from one individual who, for whatever reason, has a vendetta against Ferguson.

The calls and resulting investigations have, as one can imagine, disrupted Ferguson’s life. He has cooperated with Child Protective Services, even though he is not required to, and even took his daughter for a gynecological exam to prove that she had not been sexually abused.

My incredulity when listening to Ferguson on the radio was not because someone had made 12 malicious phone calls to the state’s child abuse hotline. I have lived long enough to know that there are people evil enough to do such things. My incredulity was the result of the complacent attitude that the police, the Rensselaer County Department of Social Services and the Rensselaer County DA’s office seem to have taken toward Ferguson’s troubles. Their attitude has been one of “we are sorry for your problems, Mr. Ferguson, but there is nothing we can do to help you because the calls have been anonymous.”

I don’t buy it.

Twelve crimes have been committed against Mr. Ferguson. He is a crime victim who is not getting the attention he deserves from the prosecutor’s office in Rensselaer County.

DA’s responsibility

According to New York state law, it is the district attorney’s responsibility to investigate and prosecute cases where false reports of child abuse are made. Claiming that the calls were anonymous is no excuse for failing to investigate. I have no doubt that if 12 anonymous, harassing phone calls were made to Rensselaer County DA Richard McNally or some other county official, all originating from the same person, an investigation would be initiated in a hurry and the culprit found.

The 12 crimes committed against Mr. Ferguson are Class A misdemeanors but may also violate other laws, such as aggravated harassment or falsely reporting an incident in the second degree, a Class E Felony, punishable by prison.

A person so full of hate and so intent on destroying another person that he or she phones in 12 false reports of child abuse is a menace to society, and in my opinion is capable of other more serious crimes. To not locate, investigate and prosecute such a person is a grave failure on the part of those agencies which are supposed to protect the public from dangerous individuals.

The failure to investigate also means that the very agencies which are supposed to protect children from child abuse are themselves abusing children. Do the Rensselaer County Child Protective Services and DA’s office think that the continual investigation of Mr. Ferguson and his children, asking the children questions about sexual abuse, the arrival of police cars at their home (on one occasion three of them) and the unnecessary physical examination of a child have no negative effect on children?

Waste of money

And there is one other reason why these crimes against Mr. Ferguson and his children should be investigated and prosecuted. The anonymous calls are wasting valuable police and social services resources, as well as the taxpayer’s money.

While Rozita Swinton has not been arrested yet for the call involving the FLDS raid in Texas, she was arrested on April 16 for another false report she made in Colorado. If the police and prosecutors in other states can track down and prosecute people making false reports of child abuse, then police and prosecutors in New York state can do the same.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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