Idaho House passes bill to criminalize false reports of child abuse

Existing law allows civil penalties, bill sponsors argue it shields the reporter’s identity

By: - February 22, 2023 5:03 pm
Rep. Heather Scott stands at her desk speaking in the Idaho House of Representatives and there is a chyron with her name and legislative district

Idaho Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, sponsored a bill that criminalizes false reports of child abuse and neglect. (Courtesy of Idaho In Session)

Legislation is making its way through the Idaho Legislature that would make it a crime to file a false report of child abuse or neglect. Several other states have similar laws on their books.

House Bill 66, sponsored by Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, passed the House on a mostly party-line vote Wednesday. Rep. David Cannon of Blackfoot was the lone Republican to vote against the bill.

It now heads to the Senate.

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, is one of the bill’s cosponsors and spoke in favor of the bill to the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee in a hearing last week.

The legislation from the North Idaho lawmakers says that any person who makes “a false report of child abuse, abandonment or neglect knowing such report to be false, or who makes such report in bad faith, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Scott and Herndon gave examples of what may or may not count as a knowingly false or “bad faith” report.

Herndon recounted a time when a nurse — whose profession is required by law to report suspected child maltreatment — called in a report about his family. He said the nurse did not have a full understanding of the situation, so that wouldn’t have been a “knowing” false report under the law, he said.

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Scott offered an example of “bad faith” during the House floor debate Wednesday. A person who sees homeschooled children playing outside at all hours, and calls in a report out of concern for the children’s wellbeing, would not be guilty under the bill, she said. However, repeated reports that are motivated by distaste for the family’s lifestyle would cross the line into “bad faith” reporting, she said.

Scott urged lawmakers to read testimony submitted by a social worker with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, who said false reporting takes up time and resources and causes anxiety and distrust in the process of child protection.

“I do not want to have anything that stops people from calling in abuse, neglect or abandonment,” the social worker wrote. “I hope there is a way to stop the vindictive false reporting.”

If convicted, a person could be jailed for up to three months, ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, or both.

About 19 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands classified false child-protection reports as a misdemeanor or similar charge, as of February 2019, according to the Children’s Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Florida, Illinois, Tennessee and Texas classify false reporting as a felony, the Children’s Bureau report said.

Idaho is one of about 29 states that allowed for civil penalties as of February 2019, the report said.

Idaho currently allows people to sue those who make false child protection reports.

“Any person who makes a report or allegation of child abuse, abandonment or neglect knowing the same to be false or who reports or alleges the same in bad faith or with malice shall be liable” to those who were falsely reported and must pay the larger of $2,500 or actual monetary damages, the current civil law says.

“If the court finds that the defendant acted with malice or oppression,” the court can triple the dollar amount of the penalty, the law says.

Herndon and Scott argued that the civil penalties are toothless because Idaho law shields the identity of people who report child maltreatment.

During the floor debate Wednesday, Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, said that Idaho already makes false reporting illegal.

“A person is guilty of a misdemeanor if he knowingly gives or causes to be given false information to any law enforcement officer, any state or local government agency or personnel, or to any person licensed in this state to practice social work, psychology or counseling, concerning the commission of an offense, knowing that the offense did not occur or knowing that he has no information relating to the offense or danger,” says one of Idaho’s longstanding statutes.

Mathias said the bill is unnecessary and would add “more government and more law.”

Scott did not respond to say how the bill differs from that statute.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 23 to add information about testimony from a social worker.


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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton was a senior investigative reporter with the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover included health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.