Whether embroiled in a divorce or child custody battle or already sharing custody with the other parent of your child—when you receive a notification letter from the Office of Children, Youth, and Families (CYF) (or the equivalent in a given county) with an allegation of abuse, it's essential to take it seriously.
Without immediate and deliberate action, an accused individual could end up on the Childline Abuse Registry. This has the potential to affect how much time and what kind of time a parent gets with a child and could lead to the loss of any rights to see them at all. Here we'll assess how a Childline allegation can affect a parent's access to their child.
How Does Childline Work?
Falling within the purview of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Human Services, under the specific section of Child Protective Services, the goal of Childline is to ensure children are in a safe, loving home.
It is a state-wide program with a mandate to “accept child abuse referrals and general child well-being concerns and transmit the information quickly to the appropriate investigating agency.”
The program is available 24/7, both electronically and over the phone. Childline accepts calls and emails from anyone and takes anonymous tips about potential abuse and neglect. As long as the reports are given in good faith, the tipster will not be subject to civil or criminal liability, even if the suspicions are proven to be unfounded.
Callers will be given information and referrals to other agencies and jurisdictions, law enforcement officials, and local social services.
Childline is set apart from the registry tied to SORNA (Pennsylvania Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act), which only includes individuals who have been convicted of a criminal offense. By contrast, individuals who have not been convicted can still be placed on the Childline registry.
What Behavior Can Lead to an Allegation of Abuse?
While obvious evidence of physical abuse—injuries, malnutrition, poor hygiene—is clearly abusive and should be reported immediately.
But what some parents consider appropriate discipline, for example, spanking or other forms of corporal punishment can be considered abusive by others. Be aware that there is a broad range of behavior that can create concern from other people who interact with a child, resulting in a call to Childline. A substantiated claim could result in a custody change.
Childline receives thousands of reports a year. A 2020 Child Protective Services Report found that the substantiation rate by the Office of Children, Youth, and Families was a mere 7.2 percent. This is, of course, extremely low, but the risk to a parent's standing and relationship with their child is very real.
If you feel you are unfairly accused, there is a way to contest it.
Why Does Pennsylvania Have Childline?
The purpose of Childline, on the surface, is noble: To protect children from abuse and neglect.
Yet this kind of database—there are other similar ones around the country, including the New York State Central Register—is highly imperfect. There has been consistent concern about how data is gathered and maintained.
While a faulty claim can severely impact the person accused, there is no due process before an individual ends up on the Childline database.
Other registries provide due process—in fact, even individuals accused of sexual offenses have a better opportunity to defend themselves. In order to be placed on the database related to Pennsylvania's Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act, an individual must be tried and convicted of a sexual offense. No such opportunity exists once someone has been on the receiving end of a Childline report.
Protecting children should be a priority for our state. But the Childline process does little to protect the rights of those called into question. An accusation can even mean a parent loses the right to see their child.
How Does Custody Work in Pennsylvania?
The overarching principle in awarding custody in Pennsylvania is “to serve the best interests of the child.” This involves a number of factors.
- The ability of each parent to meet the child's needs. This relates to adequate food and housing, education, and health care, both physical and mental.
- The living situation of each parent. The parent who retains the family home (if there is one) has a bit of an advantage here, but if the other parent can prove a safe and stable space, it levels the playing field.
- Relationships between the child and each parent. As in most states, Pennsylvania family court judges wish to encourage a relationship with each parent. The court will consider the past interactions and time spent between each parent and child as a basis for future custody arrangements.
- Parent's willingness to support the child's relationship with the other. Is each parent abiding by a current visitation schedule? Is there a history of conflict during drop-off? Is the child visibly torn between allegiances with the parents? Cooperative parents are typically more sympathetic to the court.
- Parent's relationship with the child before the divorce. In some cases, a parent who has taken little to no interest in spending time with a child suddenly becomes interested in doing so in the course of divorce proceedings. While this may, in fact, be real, judges are often skeptical and want to make sure this isn't stemming from a desire for a “win” over the other parent.
- Continuity and stability for the child. Divorce involves a great deal of upheaval for children as it is, so judges are very reluctant to make a change and typically don't want to grant an application for a revision in custody, except under extreme circumstances. A Childline accusation could constitute such an occasion and will undoubtedly make a judge take a second look and re-evaluate a custody arrangement.
- The distance between the parents' residences. Especially as children get older and develop friendships, school, and extracurricular activities, the parent who is closest to these will likely have an advantage over one who lives further away. If the distance is great, a judge will weigh the practicality of a child going back and forth regularly.
- Any history of abuse or neglect. If abuse can be substantiated, the court will definitely limit the amount and quality of time the abusive parent gets with the child. That said, a Childline report can be the beginning of building a case to limit or eliminate custody rights.
How Does a Childline Investigation Unfold?
In many cases, a state-mandated reporter—a teacher, medical professional, or social worker—is the origin of a Childline call. Based on their professions, they are required by law to report any evidence of child abuse or neglect. (If they believe a child is in imminent danger, they must report it immediately to the authorities as an emergency.) Failure to do so can result in a loss of license to practice.
The agency must take action on a call within 24 hours.
While every county has its independent protocol, the path of an investigation takes a general format.
- Upon receipt of a call, the Childline staff person gathers information and documents every aspect of the report and inquires about all of the children in the household and other related minors, even if they are not in the same domicile. The screener then makes recommendations to the call screening supervisor about whether and in what timeframe to assign the report to a caseworker.
- The supervisor will also review all relevant documentation and will provide an initial rating of risk, and determine the need for a field evaluation. If necessary, he or she will assign a response time, a CYF unit, and a caseworker.
- The supervisor will also screen out calls to determine if an assessment from CYF is unnecessary because of a lack of jurisdiction or if there is another agency better suited to addressing the concerns expressed on the call.
As soon as someone becomes the subject of a report, custody rights can be in peril. It's essential to have experienced counsel to help protect these rights. Joseph D. Lento has guided thousands of Pennsylvania clients through custody matters.
The supervisor may decide a field screening—a face-to-face assessment of the safety of the child—is needed to determine if additional steps are necessary. These may include finding a need for a Child Protective Service (CPS) investigation and/or a General Protective Service (GPS) assessment to evaluate needs that should be addressed by other social service agencies.
In this event, the caseworker will focus on assuring the safety of all of the children in the home. Sometimes she or he will conduct interviews of the minor children at school if this is possible. Later, if necessary, home visits will involve the caseworker meeting with parents, grandparents, and other guardians and caretakers to discuss the allegations made on Childline. The focus of both meetings is to objectively evaluate the level of concern for the child. The caseworker will look specifically at:
- Safety. This includes elements that would lead to the assumption that a child is in immediate danger of injury, harm, abuse, or neglect.
- Risk. This includes the same factors, except it involves the belief that the child will come to harm in the foreseeable future.
Any indication of a lack of safety or a considerable level of risk could lead to the removal of the child from the household and a subsequent review of custody rights for an accused parent, grandparent, or guardian.
An attorney experienced in all aspects of child custody should be your first call when you receive notification that you are the target of a Childline report if you are the reporter or the other parent who will be affected by a custody change.
Joseph D. Lento understands every facet of the Childline process, including the investigation. He can help guide you through this difficult time and advise you of all of your rights through every step.
Determinations From CYF Investigations
Investigators will review documentation and the records of the home visits and interviews to make a determination about the case. It will be one of three alternatives.
- Unfounded. This is in the event the investigations find no evidence of abuse or neglect.
- Unsubstantiated. Here the investigators find some signs of abuse but do not find sufficient cause to intervene.
- Substantiated. If the agency decides there is enough evidence to enter into the central registry, the charge has been substantiated, and the accused will be notified that the courts are now involved.
At this point, hiring a Pennsylvania lawyer with deep experience in custody cases is the best way to evaluate options and find a path forward.
What Happens After a Finding of Substantiation
There will be recommendations for additional social services and ongoing counseling on improvements in family life while keeping the child in the home, but there is a potential that the child will be removed. If CYF determines the child is in immediate danger, they will need to seek a court order for removal.
The first option upon removal is to have the child placed with a capable relative or family friend. This is called “kinship care.” If there is no such option available, the child will be placed in a foster home or residential facility.
If siblings are removed, the agency must make every reasonable effort to keep them together in foster care or for frequent visitation.
You Can Get Help in Custody Matters Related to Childline
Joseph D. Lento has helped countless individuals and families with Childline cases. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888.535.3686 or reach out online to see how we can assist you.