If you and your family are going through a ChildLine investigation, you're undoubtedly concerned about how one agency, without any real due process, can so drastically affect your life and the lives of your children. Your county Child, Youth, and Family Services (CYS) agency must investigate any reported child abuse or neglect allegations. Your children may be pulled out of class and interviewed, and your family, neighbors, and home may face intense scrutiny. So many people in your lives, from your child's teacher to their coaches and pediatricians, will know that you or someone in your family is under investigation for alleged child abuse or neglect.
Beyond the hit to your reputation during an investigation, your career can also take a blow. During the investigation, or after a substantiated report, your name will appear on Pennsylvania's Child Abuse Registry, an open database available to the public, and for employment and criminal background checks. You can find yourself unable to work in your chosen profession, volunteer, or work with children in any capacity. Much of this can happen without any due process. However, if your local CYS agency issues a substantiated report of child abuse against you, you can challenge the findings and your listing in the child abuse registry.
ChildLine Investigations and Findings in Pennsylvania
Once CYS completes its investigation, the agency must notify you in writing of its findings, including whether they found that the abuse report was substantiated or not. If the report wasn't substantiated, the agency didn't find enough evidence of abuse or neglect to support the child abuse or neglect allegations. If CYS notifies you that they did substantiate the child abuse report, the report will be either “indicated” or “founded.”
- Child Abuse Report Indicated If the agency finds that a report is “indicated,” it means it found “substantial evidence” of abuse based on their investigation, the perpetrator's admission, or medical evidence. This report “indicates” that abuse or neglect occurred. If you receive notification that the report of abuse or neglect against you is “indicated,” you need to inform your attorney immediately. While you can appeal this decision, you have limited time to do so.
- Child Abuse Report Founded If DHS notifies you that a report is “founded,” it is more serious than an “indicated” report, and you should contact your attorney immediately. A “founded” report means that:
- A court found that a child who is the subject of the abuse report was abused, and the court's adjudication involves “the same factual circumstances involved in the allegation of child abuse,”
- A court admitted the perpetrator into an accelerated rehabilitative program for a charge connected to the allegation of child abuse or neglect,
- A judge entered a decree in a juvenile court proceeding that a juvenile perpetrator, who is the subject of the child abuse complaint, committed the reported behavior, or
- A judge issued a final Protection from Abuse (PFA) meeting one of the above criteria.
Appealing a ChildLine Finding in Pennsylvania
If you receive notice that a report of child abuse or neglect against you is substantiated, meaning DHS found that it is “indicated” or “founded,” you have the right to appeal. However, the appellate process for ChildLine findings is complex and bureaucratic. Once you receive your notification letter from Pennsylvania DHS, you will have only 90 days to request an appeal of the findings against you.
While a DHS investigation is pending, and after DHS resolves it with a finding that the report is substantiated, you will be listed in Pennsylvania's Child Abuse Registry. Once DHS resolves a report against you as “unsubstantiated,” they have 120 days to remove you from the registry. However, if you receive services as part of DHS's investigation, your name will stay on the list, even if DHS finds the report unfounded. The Child Abuse Registry is open for criminal background checks, meaning you could face serious professional and personal consequences while your name is on the list. DHS can place you on this list without substantiated findings or criminal convictions.
Pennsylvania law allows you to appeal the findings against you and your listing in the Child Abuse Registry under several different paths. However, navigating this labyrinth can be nearly impossible for people without experience handling ChildLine investigations and appeals. You need an experienced family attorney like Joseph D. Lento to guide you.
- Missing the 90-Day Appeal Window If you miss the 90-day window to appeal the findings against you, you may have another chance. You can send a letter explaining why you were untimely and appealing the decision to the ChildLine Appeal Unit. You can request a hearing to dispute whether your appeal was timely with the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals. If you fail to request a hearing, the ChildLine Appeal Unit will close your case and your appeal.
- A1 Secretary Review of Child Abuse Registry Listing Pennsylvania law allows you to appeal your listing in the Child Abuse Registry based on “good cause shown.” See 23 Pa.C.S. § 6341 (a)(1) (2014). Good cause includes: Newly discovered evidence that an indicated report of child abuse is inaccurate or is being maintained in a manner inconsistent with this chapter. A determination that the perpetrator in an indicated report of abuse no longer represents a risk of child abuse and that no significant public purpose would be served by the continued listing of the person as a perpetrator in the Statewide database. After the ChildLine Appeal Unit receives your appeal, the unit will gather information and review the appeal. Within 60 days, they will make a recommendation to the Secretary of Public Welfare on your appeal. If the Secretary denies your appeal, you will have 90 days to request an appeal hearing. Once DHS receives your request for a hearing, your appeal will go to the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals. If you don't request a hearing, they will close your file.
- A2 Administrative Review Pennsylvania law also allows the “perpetrator” and any school employee named in a report to appeal and request a hearing “to amend or expunge an indicated report on the grounds that it is inaccurate or it is being maintained in a manner inconsistent with” Pennsylvania law. If the Secretary grants the request, they will notify the Statewide database, the appropriate county agency, law enforcement officials, and all subjects of the report. The county agency and the subject of the report will then have 90 days to file an administrative appeal with the Secretary. If the Secretary receives an appeal from the agency or the subject of the report, they will schedule a hearing. If the Secretary doesn't receive an appeal within 90 days, the Child Abuse Registry will comply with the Secretary's decision and “advise the county agency to amend or expunge the information in their records so that the records are consistent at both the State and local levels.” If the Secretary denies your appeal or fails to act within the allowed time, you can appeal and request a hearing with the Secretary to “amend or expunge an indicated report on the grounds that it is inaccurate or it is being maintained in a manner inconsistent with” the law. You must request this hearing within 90 days of the Secretary's decision or failure to make a timely decision. They will also notify your county agency and law enforcement of the hearing before the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals.
- Founded Report Appeals If you were the subject of a “founded” report, your right to appeal your listing in the Child Abuse Registry is more limited. Before removing you from the Child Abuse Registry, you must provide the ChildLine Appeals Unit with a court order. The law states: A person named as a perpetrator in a founded report of child abuse must provide to the department a court order indicating that the underlying adjudication that formed the basis of the founded report has been reversed or vacated. a.C.S. § 6341 (c.1).
- Bureau of Hearings and Appeals Whatever the pathway, once the ChildLine Appeals Unit forwards your appeal to the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (BHA), they must follow certain statutory procedures. Under the law:
- The department must schedule a hearing on the merits of the appeal within ten days of receipt,
- The department must make “reasonable efforts” to schedule the hearing date in coordination with the appellee and appellant,
- After making reasonable scheduling efforts, the department will issue a scheduling order, and the hearing before the BHS must begin within 90 days of the date they enter the scheduling order unless the parties all agree to a continuance,
- Proceedings and hearings must be scheduled to be heard on consecutive days whenever possible, but must conclude the hearing within 30 days even if they aren't,
- The department or the county CYF agency must give the appellant “with evidence gathered during the child abuse investigation within its possession that is relevant to the child abuse determination,” subject to confidentiality provisions in the law.
The hearing officer's decision is due within 45 days of the conclusion of the proceedings unless the BHA extends the date with an order on the record showing good cause for the extension. However, the extension can't extend beyond 60 days after the conclusion of the proceedings. Notice of the hearing officer's decision will go to the Child Abuse Registry, the county agency, appropriate law enforcement officials, and all subjects of the report except for the abused child.
However, BHA will automatically stay any administrative appeals if either party notifies them that there is a pending criminal proceeding or a “dependency or delinquent proceeding” relating to juvenile matters that involve the same factual matters as the administrative appeal. The Secretary can also make “any appropriate order” concerning the “amendment or expunction of such records to make them accurate or consistent with” the law.
Standard of Proof During BHA Appeals
During the hearing, the burden of proof will be on the county Child, Youth, and Family Services agency to prove by “clear and convincing evidence.” Pennsylvania law holds the agency to prove with “substantial evidence that the report should remain categorized as an indicated report.” 23 Pa.C.S. § 6341 (c.2). However, a court case in 2012 held that the courts would hold CYS agencies to a higher standard. See G.V. v. Dept. of Public Welfare, No. 125 C.D. (Pa. Commw. 2012). Pennsylvania courts generally hold that “substantial evidence” is the same as the “preponderance of evidence” standard.
In the G.V. case, the court heard arguments stemming from an “indicated” report of child sexual abuse. The appellant filed an appeal to expunge the “indicated” report because he disagreed with the findings. The administrative law judge recommended that BHA deny G.V.'s expungement appeal after a hearing with several witnesses. The BHA adopted the ALJ's recommendations in full. G.V. then appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
In its opinion, the court pointed out that “substantial evidence” is “[e]vidence which outweighs inconsistent evidence and which a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” 23 Pa.C.S. § 6303(a). The court held that:
It is undisputed that the General Assembly has pronounced that substantial evidence must support an indicated report. […] However, there is no similar legislative mandate regarding the standard of proof to be met for maintaining the indicated report summary on the ChildLine Registry.
The court when on to explain that cases involving a significant loss of freedom or livelihood require “clear and convincing evidence,” a higher standard than “substantial evidence.” So, while maintaining the safety and well-being of the child can require the lower “substantial evidence” standard, the listing on the Child Abuse Registry and disclosure of that information to third parties requires a higher standard of proof.
You Need a Skilled Pennsylvania Family Attorney
If you and your family are facing a ChildLine investigation or recently received a substantiated finding against you, you need legal help immediately. An experienced Pennsylvania family attorney skilled in handling ChildLine and CYS investigations and appeals can help. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm have helped many Pennsylvania families through CPS investigations, and they can help you too. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888.535.3686, or contact them online to schedule your consultation.