ChildLine investigators in Pennsylvania are state employees who are specially trained to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect. Investigators work for the Office of Children, Youth, and Families (OCYF), a division of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services that receives, investigates, and refers cases involving suspected child abuse, abandonment, and neglect. Although ChildLine investigators deal with heavy claims of child abuse and work toward one of society's biggest goals of protecting children, parents and caregivers are not automatically assumed “guilty.” Investigators must remain respectful and courteous and must further ensure that they follow proper procedure and protocol throughout the investigatory phase. As any parent will understand, there is nothing more serious than your child's well-being. If you are being investigated by CYS, it's imperative that you work with a qualified ChildLine attorney immediately and understand your legal rights throughout the process.
Mandated and Permissive Reporters
A Pennsylvania ChildLine investigation is triggered when a ChildLine worker receives a report of suspected child abuse. In many cases, these calls are made by either mandated or permissive reporters who contact the office of Child Welfare Services' toll-free line. A mandated reporter is a person who is legally obligated to report instances of suspected child abuse if they have cause to believe that a child is being abused, neglected, or has been abandoned. Mandated reporters in Pennsylvania are typically government employees and/or people who, on the basis of their role or position, are responsible for children's welfare or have direct access to children. Employees or volunteers such as school employees, medical examiners, volunteers, spiritual leaders, and even librarians are all considered mandated reporters in Pennsylvania. Mandated reporters are required to report all suspected incidents of child abuse. Other individuals, known as Permissive Reporters, are all remaining individuals who are encouraged, rather than required, to report suspected abuse to ChildLine.
The Investigation Begins
After ChildLine receives a report of suspected abuse, investigators have 24 hours to review the report and determine whether or not the call warrants further investigation. Employees who work in the intake unit may contact the family, speak to the child at school, review police reports, etc., and determine the next steps. Investigators may visit the family home once or multiple times. In some instances, parents may be notified about the visits, but in many instances, these visits will be unannounced. At this point in the investigation, the investigators may believe there is no cause for concern and close the case. They can also proceed with intervention services such as helping a victim of domestic violence obtain a stay-away order or help an impoverished family apply for government assistance, etc. If the investigators feel that intervention services alone are not enough, they may refer the matter out, and a formal dependency case will commence. Depending on the nature of the case and the severity of the allegations, local law enforcement may also investigate the allegations.
Although this is a condensed review of the entire referral and investigation process, it's important to understand that the investigators must not only use their best judgment throughout the entire investigatory phase but are also bound by the law to follow certain procedures and protocols. In some instances, their failure to do so can have catastrophic legal and personal consequences.
What Does the Law Say?
Section 3490.55 of the Pennsylvania Code describes the protocol and procedures investigators must follow during the investigation of reports of suspected child abuse. Under this statute, ChildLine Investigators must conduct interviews with any persons who know or are suspected of having knowledge about the alleged incident. Investigators may freely contact these people and do not need to inform you before speaking with them. These interviews can take place in the family home, the child's school, the parent's workplace, a neighbor's house, a government office, or even the local police station, etc. Individuals that the investigators may want to interview include:
- The child, if appropriate;
- The child's parents, guardians, or caretakers;
- The alleged perpetrator of the abuse (parent, family member, unrelated person, etc.);
- The individual who reported the abuse, if known;
- Any witnesses;
- Additional relatives or neighbors;
- Other individuals who may have knowledge about the child's overall well-being, such as teachers, nannies, etc.
Although you have the right to know that an investigation is being conducted and what it will entail, you do not have the right to be present while the investigator interviews these individuals. If you fear that a witness's statements may be misconstrued or the Investigator may speak with someone who has a vendetta against you or your family, Attorney Lento can help challenge the witnesses' credibility.
While conducting the interviews, the social workers must keep a detailed record of the results of the interviews as well as any other attempts to reach the family, witnesses, etc. If the social worker jumps to conclusions or makes broad statements about the family that are not supported by the detailed evidence contained in the report, this may mean that proper protocol was not followed during the investigation. In instances where the suspected abuse is physical in nature, investigators should also take photographs of the injury or place of the injury to document the incident.
In other instances of alleged physical, sexual, emotional, or mental abuse, investigators may also review medical reports and/or examinations that have already been conducted. If the alleged reports indicate that the child has suffered severe harm, the investigator can also arrange for the child to receive an immediate physical examination. The physical exam may also include additional testing such as blood work, imaging, etc. If the safety of the family's home is in question, investigators should also document the condition of the home as well.
What Exactly Can Investigators Do?
Investigators Can Show Up to Your House Unannounced
Most people don't like having unannounced visitors in their houses. This is often the case even when there are no serious consequences on the line. While it may seem like a major violation of privacy, ChildLine investigators can show up unannounced at your house while conducting their investigation. However, absent a court order or concern that your children are in immediate danger, investigators may not enter your home without your permission. If investigators are seeking permission to conduct a home investigation, you should immediately contact attorney Lento and his qualified Family Law Team to discuss whether it is in your best interest to delay the visit or not.
Should you choose to allow the investigators in your home, they will conduct a thorough inquiry into any possible signs of abuse and neglect. Some of the things investigators may be looking for include:
- Whether there is enough healthy food in the home for your child(ren), such as milk, bread, veggies, etc.
- What the sleeping arrangements are like in the home. For instance, if you have a newborn, is there a safe crib? Are children sleeping in the same bed as other family members, step-parents, etc?
- The cleanliness of the home, such as whether there is any trash in the home, exposed animal feces, lack of clean laundry, etc.
- Are any prescription drugs safe and out of reach of the children?
- Are there signs of illicit drug use in the home?
- Whether there are any obvious safety hazards in the home, such as a lack of electricity or water, exposed electrical wiring, etc.
Investigators Don't Need Your Permission to Speak to Your Children
While the idea of allowing your child to speak to a complete stranger without your permission may feel scary, investigators do not need your permission to speak with your children. In instances where a child is being abused, parents may attempt to thwart the interview, further placing the child at risk. Parents do, however, have the right to see their children throughout the investigatory period. If the immediate safety of the child is at risk, the visits may need to be supervised by a court-ordered monitor, or they can take place at the police station or even one of the local CYS offices.
Investigators Should Seek Your Input
In instances where the ChildLine referral and investigation have led to an emergency removal of your child, investigators must work with parents and guardians to determine any available family members or friends that could possibly have the child stay with them. While these individuals must pass the requisite background checks and also have safe homes, parents have the right to suggest possible homes, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, etc., where their children may feel safe.
Parental Rights Matter: Limitations on Investigators
Throughout the entire investigative period, parents and guardians retain certain enumerable rights which the investigator must respect. If you are a parent or guardian involved in an investigation, some of your rights include:
- The right to know about the nature of the suspected child abuse;
- The right to see and speak to your child(ren) throughout the investigatory period;
- The right to be informed about the investigation, how the investigation will be conducted, and approximately how long the investigation will take;
- The right to know the nature of the suspected harm the child may have suffered;
- The results of the social worker's investigation (results of interviews, medical reports, etc.);
- The next steps the social worker may be considering (removal, custodial changes, safety plans, etc.)
The threat of being separated from your child is any parent's worst nightmare. Although many CYS investigators will treat you with proper courtesy and respect, in some instances, they will capitalize on your emotion and can use intimidation tactics throughout the investigatory period to pressure you into making certain admissions. Although often well-intentioned and motivated by the desire for your child's well-being, investigators are only human and can easily misinterpret a situation and jump to conclusions about you or your familial situation. It's important to remember that while ChildLine investigators must thoroughly examine all relevant signs of possible abuse, they must continue to treat you with respect and refrain from improper interview techniques.
You also have the right to be treated respectfully, equally, and fairly, free of any discrimination that is based on race, color, religion, national origin/identity, place of birth, immigration status, gender, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, economic status, etc. Because of this, the Investigator should take any relevant cultural, spiritual, etc. influences into consideration while examining your child's home life. Even in instances where ChildLine investigators may not “agree” with your child's upbringing or your family's value system, they must keep an objective viewpoint in determining whether your child is in an abusive environment.
How An Attorney Can Help Throughout a Childline Investigation
Although ChildLine cases may not have any criminal crossover, you still have the right to an attorney to represent you throughout the entire case, including the investigatory phase. If you are facing a ChildLine investigation, Attorney Lento and his Family Law Team can help advocate for you with the agency as well as the court. Some of the ways an attorney can help include:
- Helping you respond to the allegations and report;
- Ensuring that the investigator is following proper procedures and protocol and that your rights are protected throughout the entire investigatory period;
- Helping you determine whether the investigator has made a fair decision or if alternative routes are available; and
- Helping you appeal an unfavorable decision.
Work With a Qualified Childline Attorney Immediately
If your family is currently being investigated by a ChildLine investigator, you are likely terrified, stressed, and anxious. The state of Pennsylvania takes reports of alleged child abuse seriously, and it is imperative that you work with a qualified family law attorney immediately. While it may seem like you do not have any rights or ability to explain things from your side, you do. Pennsylvania attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm will walk you through what steps to take and advocate for you throughout the entire matter to achieve the best possible outcome. Call us today at 888-535-3686 or use our online contact form to reach us.