Was Tiger Woods the victim of a false child abuse report?

January 12th, 2010 by

www.sun-sentinel.com – In the midst of the Tiger Woods sex scandal, newspapers around the globe reported that Florida child abuse investigators visited the golfer’s Orlando area home to assess the safety of his daughter and infant son.

“Florida Child Welfare Checks Out Tiger’s Cubs,” one New York paper reported, citing the online celebrity web site TMZ.com.

Nothing came of the matter.

Now, a state senator who oversees Florida’s Department of Children & Families is calling for an investigation into whether someone knowingly filed a false child abuse report against the Woods family, perhaps needlessly traumatizing the Woods children and wasting time and tax dollars. Doing so is a felony.

The senator said she thinks a call was placed to the Florida Abuse Hotline “to keep the media celebrity attention going.”

“To use the resources of the state for some grand celebrity theater is completely unacceptable,” said Sen. Ronda Storms, a Hillsborough County Republican who chairs the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. “It robs children who are legitimately in danger.”

In a letter to DCF Secretary Sheldon George Sheldon, Storms asked him to “fully investigate” the matter and to provide the Orange County State Attorney’s Office with evidence that would aid in prosecution.

Sheldon responded Dec. 30 that: “We assure you we are currently reviewing the available information surrounding this investigation.”

DCF declined to discuss the issue in detail with the Sun Sentinel, citing confidentiality laws governing child abuse reports and investigations.

Department spokesman Joe Follick, however, said: “A verified false report may prompt civil or criminal penalties … meaning a letter, fine, or arrest.”

Under state law, civil fines can reach up to $10,000. A criminal charge could carry up to five years in prison.

The Orange County State Attorney’s Office said it had not received any referral from DCF regarding the filing of an intentionally false child abuse allegation. By law, DCF would have to have the permission of the Woods family to refer the issue for prosecution.

Statewide, prosecutions are rare because authorities have a hard time establishing that people “willingly and knowingly” have provided false information, said Randy Means, executive director of the Orange County State Attorney’s Office.

Generally, false child abuse claims are fabricated by warring spouses in custody battles or “as a means of retaliation,” in some unrelated dispute, according to DCF.

From 2005-08, the department suspected that 400 deceptive abuse reports were filed, according to agency statistics. DCF referred 125 to law enforcement. but only five were prosecuted.

In that same time frame, DCF reviewed 52 cases for potential civil fines but levied none.

“Without self-admission, false reporting can be difficult to prove and weighs greatly on intention,” Sheldon, the department secretary, said in a written statement to the Sun Sentinel.

Storms said she fears that if DCF does not take action in the Woods matter, others may be emboldened to fabricate allegations.

Asked if she had suspicions about who placed the call to the state’s abuse hotline, Storms told the Sun Sentinel: “Call me a cynic, call me skeptical but it’s not beyond the pale to think that this was done by somebody in the celebrity entertainment circle. Yes. I mean, I don’t think that stretches credulity to arrive at that conclusion. But it could just as well have been some person, like a hanger-on, just a person who follows celebrity.”

The call apparently was made to the hotline on Friday, Dec. 11. Heavily redacted emails obtained by the Sun Sentinel show DCF officials discussing the “special handling” of a “high profile case” that day. The department said “special handling” in sensitive cases is used to limit access to case files to key personnel.

Two days later, on Sunday Dec. 13, TMZ.com and RadarOnline.com, another celebrity news web site, broke the news that DCF had visited the Woods home that Friday.

Sen. Storms, a lawyer and the mother of two, said the filing of false child abuse reports put “a tremendous strain” on the child welfare system. “You’re stealing money from children who need protection.”


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