Pennsylvania's ChildLine is a statewide system for receiving, investigating, and recording reports of child abuse. Pennsylvania-mandated reporters of suspected child abuse, like teachers and health professionals, must report suspected child abuse through the ChildLine system, but so, too, may anyone else. Agency staff caseworkers in the local county offices of regional Children, Youth, and Family Division offices investigate ChildLine reports. They record child abuse in the ChildLine statewide database when their evidence indicates child abuse. Background checks for employment and other important matters access the ChildLine database. A ChildLine entry can have significant positive protections for the party claiming abuse and significant negative impacts for the party accused of abuse. The stakes that parties have in ChildLine disputes make Childline evidentiary rules especially important for parties to understand.
Why the Evidentiary Standard of Proof Is Important
A ChildLine entry indicating a person has committed child abuse requires no court hearing. The caseworker needs only to find that evidence indicates child abuse. The caseworker should have notified the accused that the accused is subject to a ChildLine investigation. The accused should have had an opportunity to share evidence with the caseworker. But the party making the abuse complaint and the party accused of abuse do not contest the caseworker's evidence in a court hearing. The party facing the accusation may only appeal the entry later to an administrative law judge, meaning that the indication of child abuse remains in ChildLine until an appeal concludes successfully. The caseworker's liberty to indicate in ChildLine without any court review that the accused party committed child abuse makes the caseworker's evidentiary standard vitally important to the outcome of a ChildLine matter.
The Evidentiary Standard of Proof
The evidentiary standard of proof tells the agency how much evidence it must have to record in ChildLine that evidence indicates abuse. The evidentiary standard of proof for ChildLine reports was once very low, far lower than the criminal court standard of proof known as “beyond a reasonable doubt.” From when the Pennsylvania legislature first enacted the ChildLine legislation codified at 55 Pa. Code Sections 3490.1 et seq. decades ago, up until 2012, the evidentiary standard for the agency to find and report child abuse in ChildLine was so low that virtually any evidence of child abuse could result in a ChildLine record. But in 2012, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court raised the evidentiary standard to a sort of halfway point between the legislature's original, very-low evidentiary standard and the far higher beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard for criminal court cases. The evidentiary standard today is relatively low compared to the criminal standard but not as low as it once was. Both the party making the abuse accusation and the party defending the accusation thus each have a fairly high, but not extremely high, standard of proof.
The Former Evidentiary Standard
In the state's law, statute 55 Pa. Code Section 3940.4 still defines the evidentiary standard of proof for ChildLine “indicated” reports as “substantial evidence,” although the Supreme Court has raised that standard. If you look up the standard in the law code, it still shows the old standard that the Supreme Court has overturned. Substantial evidence is simply evidence that a reasonable mind could accept in support of a conclusion of child abuse. Notice that substantial evidence does not even account for how much evidence the accused abuser has that the accused abuser did not commit any abuse. The old standard thus was arguably lower than the already-low “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in civil cases, where the court weighs each side's evidence. That's why the Supreme Court threw out the old substantial evidence standard. Another part of the statute, though, addresses where the caseworker may find evidence of child abuse. The statute states that the agency may draw substantial evidence from available medical evidence, the child protective service investigation, or the alleged perpetrator's admission. The statute still applies in that part.
The Present Evidentiary Standard
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's 2012 decision significantly raised the Childline evidentiary standard. Traditionally, courts have used the substantial evidence standard only in administrative law judge reviews of agency decisions, not to parse and weigh the evidence in the challenge of the agency's decision but just to ensure that the agency had some evidence to justify its action. Traditionally, the evidentiary standard in civil cases has been a preponderance of the evidence, meaning enough evidence to make the case more probable than not. But in some civil cases, such as for fraud, the courts have traditionally required more evidence under a standard articulated as “clear and convincing evidence.” In most criminal cases, the Constitution requires that prosecutors prove each element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. The substantial evidence standard is the lowest standard, the preponderance standard is the next lowest standard, the clear and convincing standard is the next highest standard, and the beyond a reasonable-doubt standard is the highest standard. For ChildLine cases, the Supreme Court chose the clear and convincing evidence standard. That decision effectively raised the evidentiary standard two rungs above the original substantial evidence standard. The Supreme Court decision helped individuals accused of child abuse in ChildLine investigations. On the other hand, the Supreme Court didn't raise the standard to the highest criminal standard, so that parties making abuse allegations can still see them stand without having to meet that highest standard.
Appealing ChildLine Child Abuse Indications
While the clear and convincing evidence standard is a relatively high standard, requiring significantly more evidence than the original substantial evidence standard, nothing necessarily says that the ChildLine caseworker must have applied the higher clear and convincing evidence standard. After all, no court or administrative law judge is hearing the caseworker's evidence to determine whether it meets the evidentiary standard. Instead, the caseworker is simply making the ChildLine entry or refusing to do so. In theory, the caseworker could make the entry or refuse to make the entry on no evidence, some evidence, clear and convincing evidence, or the even highest evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. That liberty is what makes ChildLine appeals important. If the caseworker taking an abuse complaint has refused to make a ChildLine entry despite clear and convincing evidence of abuse, or if a caseworker has indicated in ChildLine that a party committed child abuse but without the caseworker having clear and convincing evidence, then an appeal may correct the caseworker's action either way.
The Admissibility of Evidence in a ChildLine Appeal
An evidentiary standard like clear and convincing evidence doesn't tell whether the evidence is admissible or not. An evidentiary standard just tells how much evidence the decision-maker must have. Whether the evidence is admissible or not becomes an important question only when the decision maker is not the caseworker gathering the evidence but instead a reviewing authority like an appeal judge. The caseworker and involved individuals may have lots of evidence, but the appeal judge must decide what evidence to even consider. That's a question of admissibility, not the evidentiary standard. The appeals judge will hold the ChildLine caseworker and the agency's appeal attorney to the burden of proving the indicated child abuse by clear and convincing evidence. But the appeals judge will first determine what evidence is admissible or inadmissible in the appeal hearing. A state appeal attorney will likely assist the caseworker in presenting child abuse evidence. No matter which side a party is on in a ChildLine dispute, the party should have skilled attorney representation.
The Administrative Forum for ChildLine Appeals
An appeal of a ChildLine decision effectively removes the determination from the hands of the assigned local caseworker. It also takes the decision out of the caseworker's local office. But an appeal does not go straight to court. Instead, an administrative law judge will hear an appeal in an administrative forum without a jury. Because an administrative law judge decides ChildLine appeals, and judges have substantial training and experience in the reliability of evidence, ChildLine administrative appeals tend not to strictly apply rules on the admissibility of evidence. The administrative law judge knows those evidence admissibility rules. But administrative appeals tend to relax evidence admissibility rules as a time-saving and efficiency measure because the judge presumably already knows what evidence is hearsay, duplicative, unduly prejudicial, unauthenticated, or otherwise objectionable.
Evidence Rules in a ChildLine Appeal Administrative Forum
Although a ChildLine appeal occurs in an administrative forum that relaxes the rules of evidence, unlike a formal court proceeding before a jury, that difference doesn't mean that the administrative appeal forum has no evidence rules. The administrative appeals judge has rules on the admissibility of evidence to apply. Those rules are just lower or more relaxed than the evidence rules in a formal court proceeding before a jury. The statute 1 Pa. Code Section 35.161 provides for the admissibility of evidence in administrative appeals as follows: “In a proceeding before the agency head or a presiding officer, relevant and material evidence shall be admissible, but there shall be excluded evidence that is repetitious or cumulative or evidence that is not of the kind which would affect reasonable and fair-minded men in the conduct of their daily affairs.”
Objecting to Inadmissible Evidence in a ChildLine Administrative Appeal
A retained family law attorney can have a substantial opportunity to object to inadmissible evidence and advocate for consideration of admissible evidence, in a ChildLine appeal under 1 Pa. Code Section 35.161's rules for the admissibility of evidence in administrative appeals. The statute first requires that the evidence must be relevant and material. Relevancy and materiality are the fundamental evidence gatekeepers in any regulated proceeding. Evidence that is relevant is evidence that makes any material fact more or less probable. Think of it: the caseworker maintains that a party committed or did not commit child abuse. Any evidence that makes the party's abuse of the child more or less probable is thus relevant and material evidence. So, for example, a hospital record that showed a burn pattern consistent with intentional abuse would be admissible, just as photographs showing no injury whatsoever would also be admissible. The caseworker's state attorney would generally offer evidence making abuse allegations more probable. The rules for admissibility under 1 Pa. Code Section 35.161 also excludes repetitious, cumulative, and unduly prejudicial evidence. Evidence that a party had a bankruptcy, foreclosure, prior separation or divorce, or other tangential matters that might lower the party's reputation but otherwise have nothing to do with abuse allegations may be inadmissible.
What's at Stake in a ChildLine Evidentiary Dispute
Parties have a lot on the line in their ChildLine matters, no matter on which side a party is on in the dispute. A caseworker's refusal to find abuse despite factually supported allegations can leave a party and the party's children without critical protection. On the other hand, a ChildLine entry indicating that a party committed child abuse can not only be a great embarrassment but also cause great suspicion and lower the party's reputation among neighbors, co-workers, friends, family members, and all other acquaintances with whom the party has contact. A ChildLine entry indicating that a party committed child abuse can also deny the party opportunities for employment, education, licensure, certifications, and other things important to the party's flourishing. A ChildLine entry indicating child abuse can have extraordinarily far-reaching collateral consequences. And no matter which side a party is on in the dispute, questions over the correct evidentiary standard and the admissibility of evidence in a ChildLine appeal can go a long way toward determining the outcome of the ChildLine matter. With all that parties have at stake in a ChildLine registry dispute, they need and deserve competent representation.
Premier Family Law Services for ChildLine Cases
Pennsylvania family law attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped many clients obtain their best outcome and the best outcome for their family in a ChildLine dispute. Attorney Lento has the substantial skills, long experience, and greatest commitment to help a client and the client's family through abuse allegations. Call 888.535.3686 or go online now if in need of representation relating to a ChildLine dispute.