The Simpsons’ Cautionary Tale about Mandatory Reporting and the Trauma of Short Stays in the Child Welfare System

By: Stephanie Turcios

The creators of the animated series, The Simpsons, depicted the unintended consequences of our child welfare system in its 1995 episode titled, Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily. In this episode, the Simpson children are sent to live with their neighbors, the Flanders, who serve as foster parents, while Homer and Marge complete a parenting class to get their children back. Sadly, the problems depicted in this episode still exist today. 

The Simpsons’ involvement in the child welfare system.

The Simpsons became involved in the child welfare system through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings. First, Bart went to school with head lice after playing with his best friend’s  pet monkey. Second, Lisa reported to the principal’s office without shoes after an altercation with bullies on the playground and her baby tooth fell out. Consequently, Bart and Lisa’s principal reported the children’s condition to Child Protective Services (“CPS”) out of concern for the children’s wellbeing. When the CPS agents arrived at the Simpson’s home, Marge and Homer were away for an afternoon getaway at the spa, but CPS found their home to be a “squalid hellhole.” Newspapers from 20 years ago were sitting on the kitchen table for Lisa’s school project, the dishes were not done, and the trash had not been taken out. The final straw for the CPS agents was the fact that Grandpa had fallen asleep while watching Maggie. Given the totality of the circumstances, the CPS agents believed Homer and Marge were negligent parents and immediately removed Bart, Lisa, and Maggie from their parents’ care. 

The episode continues by depicting how much the children miss their parents, and the hurdles Homer and Marge must overcome to regain custody of their children. Although this episode is comical and has a happy ending, this is not the case for many families impacted by the child welfare system. The Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily episode provides an impetus for a deeper conversation about the problematic nature of mandatory reporting and the trauma children experience as a result of short stays in foster care.  

The problematic nature of mandatory reporting.

Principal Skinner was required to report the conditions of Bart and Lisa to CPS under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). See 42 U.S.C. § 5106a(b)(2)(B)(i).  Like in The Simpsons episode, the unfortunate road to the child welfare system almost always begins with a report to CPS for suspected neglect via a mandatory reporter. According to the Children’s Bureau, in 2019, more than two-thirds (68.6 %) of all reports of alleged child neglect were made by mandatory reporters. 

Mandatory reporters are likely to overreport because of the financial and legal consequences built into our federal statute. First, to receive federal funding, states must require certain professionals to be mandatory reporters. Most states impose the mandatory reporting requirement on a lengthy list of professionals, including teachers, principals, and school administrators. Second, a mandatory reporter must report any suspected child neglect or abuse or risk possible incarceration and losing their license. Hence, mandatory reporting is a double edged sword because these are professionals that are able to help meet a child’s needs but are simultaneously instrumental in removing children from their parents’ care.

Unfortunately, research shows that mandatory reporting fails to protect children. According to an international qualitative study of mandatory reporters, most of whom were in the U.S., 73% of mandatory reporters reported negative experiences with the process. Mandatory reporters described experiences where children were revictimized by the process, their abuse intensified after the report, and children were placed in foster care environments that were worse than the family of origin.

The trauma of short stays.

Most Americans are unaware that the experience of the Simpson children depicted in the episode is common in real life. Children are removed temporarily (either for a few days or a few weeks) without a court order while their parents sort out the allegations against them. On average, approximately 17,000 children are removed from their families’ custody per year and placed in foster care only to be reunited within days. Child welfare experts refer to these removals as “short stays.” 

Remarkably, Washington’s King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties are amongst the counties with the highest percentage of short stays in the U.S. This is because in Washington, a child can be removed by law enforcement and placed in protective custody without a court order for up to 72 hours if law enforcement believes a child is being abused or neglected and will be hurt if not removed immediately. (emphasis added). Like in the episode when Bart had lice and Lisa lost her shoes and baby tooth, indicators of neglect in Washington may include the child being dirty, lacking needed medical or dental care, or lacking sufficient clothing for the weather.  These indicators are enough to remove children from their parents’ care for up to 72 hours. 

Studies on child development show that when children are separated from their parents, it is the source of a lifelong trauma, regardless of how long the separation lasts. Some children who were removed from their home described the experience as “being kidnapped,” even if it only lasted for a few days. Further, children who experience even brief separation from their families release a higher level of cortisol-stress hormones that damage unrenewable brain cells. Dr. Charles Nelson, professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, said “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”  

Should we reconsider mandatory reporting?

Many people wondered how the U.S. government could unnecessarily traumatize children by separating them from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. But the reality is the U.S. government has been doing this to its own citizens for decades via short stays in the foster care system, and consequently, causing irreversible harm to children. Animated cartoons like The Simpsons create a safe space for people to reflect on the issues depicted in the episode and critically evaluate the impact our current system is having on people’s lives. A system that perpetuates harm requires a reimagined approach. Instead of requiring mandatory reporting, professionals should have the discretion to report without fear of losing their license or facing criminal penalties. Perhaps reimagining mandatory reporting will free community spaces from harmful practices and give social service professionals the liberty to work with families to get children’s needs met rather than subjecting them to unnecessary trauma.

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