We all know that abuse or neglect of a child is bad and something our local and state agencies should prevent whenever possible. In Pennsylvania, estimates are that one in 1,000 children is abused or neglected. In 2021, the state had more than 5,000 “substantiated” cases of child abuse, an increase of more than 2,000 over five years But what happens when someone reports neglect or abuse of a child in Pennsylvania? Is the report confidential? Will people know you've been reported? What can happen to you and your family if someone reports your family to ChildLine? What happens next, and what are the possible consequences? Unfortunately, you don't just have to worry about a possible finding of neglect or abuse at the end of an investigation. The investigation itself, interviews with your child's teachers, doctors, coaches, and neighbors, can all place your family under a great deal of stress and subject you and your family to harmful gossip and speculation.
What is ChildLine?
ChildLine is Pennsylvania's outlet for reporting suspected child abuse and neglect. The state-wide initiative allows people to report suspected abuse by phone or electronically 24/7. The state implemented the initiative in 2015 after passing many new Pennsylvania laws to protect children. The state made reporting and clearance more efficient and hired extra staff to ensure the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services could handle increased reporting. The agency went from 43% of calls being deflected or abandoned in January 2015 to 2% by September 2016. ChildLine receives more than 170,000 reports a year.
While ChildLine undoubtedly saves lives and protects children, anonymous reports are sometimes abused. People involved in custody disputes, neighbors with an axe to grind, or people who are generally disapproving of your parenting can make an anonymous report to ChildLine that must be investigated. That's why it's important to understand how ChildLine investigations work and the potential consequences of a ChildLine report.
How Do ChildLine Investigations Work?
ChildLine investigations follow the same basic process involving each initial report, including the intake process, screening by a county Child, Youth, and Family Services (CYF) agency, the investigation, and the findings.
The ChildLine Report
An initial report to ChildLine can happen by phone for anyone who wants to report suspected abuse or neglect. Phone reports can be anonymous Mandated reporters can also report suspected abuse electronically through a ChildLine account. If anyone believes you or someone in your home is abusing your child, they can call the ChildLine number to report you or your family. When someone calls to make a report, the ChildLine intake staff will ask them about the following:
- The child's name, address, sex, age, and race,
- The parents' names and addresses, or the name and address of the person who is the subject of the report,
- The name of the person potentially responsible for causing or allowing the abuse or mistreatment of the child,
- Details about the child's injuries, harm, and any prior injuries,
- The reporter's name and where they can reach them,
- From medical providers, the actions they took to treat or document the alleged abuse or neglect, who they notified, and
- Any other helpful information about the child and their situation.
The ChildLine intake staff will assess the following information as part of the report:
- The identity and location of the potentially abused or neglected child,
- The age of the child,
- Where the abuse happened,
- The potential perpetrator of the abuse and how they're responsible for the child as a parent, guardian, teacher, foster care or daycare provider, or other adults responsible for the child,
- Whether the child sustained a serious injury or is in imminent danger of harm,
- Whether the person legally responsible for the child had sexual contact with the child or allowed someone else to have sexual contact, and
- Whether the responsible person failed to provide a minimal degree of care and whether that puts the child in imminent danger of harm or harmed the child.
This report to the ChildLine intake staff is typically not anonymous, but the reporter can ask to remain anonymous. This means that you won't know who reported you or your family. While ChildLine only typically shares information with others on a need-to-know basis, the initial reporter may talk to others in the community. They could be spreading rumors that you abuse or neglect your child, or that someone else in your family does, damaging your reputation in the community and affecting your career, volunteer work, and more. If you're concerned about someone spreading unfounded abuse rumors or filing baseless reports, you can discuss your options with an experienced family attorney like Joseph D. Lento.
Report Sent to the County
After the initial report, the ChildLine intake team will ensure the report reaches your county Child, Youth, and Family Services agency for investigation, assessment, and child protective services. If the allegations appear to meet Pennsylvania's legal definition of abuse, ChildLine will assign a unique number and track the outcome of the investigation. They may also refer allegations to the police or callers to other social services agencies. If the ChildLine intake team refers the allegations to the police, you will likely face an immediate investigation for possible criminal charges. If the police show up at your door on the basis of an urgent child abuse allegation, you need an experienced attorney like Joseph D. Lento immediately. You don't have to speak to the police; you have the right to have your attorney present during an interview or questioning to ensure the police don't violate your rights.
Child, Youth, and Family Services Screening
When your county Child, Youth, and Family Services agency receives the report, as part of their screening, they will:
- Gather information and document any reports,
- Ask about any related children or other children that live in the home, and
- Recommend whether to assign a case to a caseworker.
A supervisor then rates the level of risk, determines whether a field investigation is needed, and assigns a caseworker as needed. If CYF doesn't have jurisdiction, or the allegations don't include any legal reason why CYF should investigate, they will screen out the call. If a field screening is needed, a caseworker may meet face-to-face with your child to determine their safety. The caseworker does not need your permission to interview your child, and you may not even know about the meeting.
If your county's Child, Youth, and Family Services department decides to proceed with an investigation, they will notify you with a notice of investigation. This notice is to alert you that a caseworker will be investigating. The caseworker may:
- Make announced and unannounced home visits,
- Conduct interviews with family, reporting sources, school personnel, medical professionals, and others who know or work with the family,
- Assess the safety and future risk of children,
- Develop a safety plan if needed,
- Arrange for services if needed to reduce the risk of harm to children,
- Initiate and present in Children's Court proceedings if needed,
- Decide if ongoing agency intervention is necessary,
- Develop goals and action steps with the family and their support people as needed.
When CYF conducts interviews with your child, teachers, doctors, friends, and neighbors, they will not notify you in advance. Meetings with your child can take place at school, where the caseworker will pull your child out of class for the interview. As a result, your child's school, teacher, office staff, and possibly their classmates will know that CYF is investigating your family. If CYF reaches out to your child's pediatrician and other medical providers, the investigation may become part of your child's medical record. If CYF interviews tutors, coaches, or religious advisers that work with your child and your family, they will all know about the investigation for possible child abuse and neglect.
If CYF interviews neighbors, your entire neighborhood may soon know about the CYF investigation. All of these interviews can cause serious harm to your reputation and can harm your child at school, extracurriculars, and youth groups if rumors about them and your family are flying around. This is why it's essential that you contact an experienced attorney like Joseph D. Lento immediately after you receive notice of a CYF investigation involving your family. Attorney Lento is well-versed in handling ChildLine matters and investigations can explain your options, ensure you know your rights, and discuss the matter with CYF caseworkers.
After completing the investigation, the caseworker will decide that the allegations of abuse or neglect are “substantiated” or “unsubstantiated.” Most investigations are resolved within 30 days, although sometimes you will receive a notice that findings are still pending. This may happen if there's an ongoing court or juvenile case with related criminal charges or the caseworker hasn't had enough time to complete their investigation. If the caseworker needs more time, they must document why. At this point, they'll have another 30 days to complete the investigation. Unfortunately, the law allows CYF to drag investigative proceedings out, increasing the time your family and your child face the stress of a possible finding against you.
What Are ChildLine Findings?
The investigation findings will typically fall into either “substantiated” or “unsubstantiated” categories based on whether the caseworker finds enough evidence to validate the report of abuse or neglect. If the findings state that the allegations are unsubstantiated, the caseworker didn't find enough evidence of abuse or neglect to validate the report. If the findings state that the allegations are “substantiated,” they will be either “indicated” or “founded.”
A report is indicated if the caseworker found substantial evidence of abuse based on the child protective services investigation, the admission of the perpetrator, or medical evidence. Meaning substantial evidence “indicates” that abuse or neglect occurred.
A “founded” report is more serious and indicates that:
- There was “a judicial adjudication based on a finding that a child who is a subject of the report has been abused, and the adjudication involves the same factual circumstances involved in the allegation of child abuse”
- The perpetrator was admitted into an accelerated rehabilitative program for circumstances connected to the allegation of child abuse,
- A judge entered a decree in a juvenile proceeding that a juvenile perpetrator committed the alleged behavior, or
- A judge issued a final Protection from Abuse (PFA) order that meets one of these criteria.
What Are the Potential Consequences of ChildLine Involvement?
In addition to the indirect consequences and reputational harm that can come from a CYF investigation, you can also face direct consequences, including possibly losing your children, criminal charges, inclusion on a public child abuse registry, and loss of professional licenses and damage to your career.
Losing Your Children
The court or a CYF caseworker can remove a child from your home in an emergency if they believe the child faces imminent danger, illness, or injury because of physical or sexual abuse in their current environment. In an emergency, CYF doesn't need a court order to remove the child from your home and place them temporarily with a relative, a foster home, or a residential care facility.
CYF must provide services that keep your child in your home whenever possible. However, if CYF believes the only way to keep your child safe is to remove them from home, they may also seek a court order. If CYF removes siblings, they must make a reasonable effort to keep them together unless they can prove to a judge that it isn't in the children's best interests to keep them together.
ChildLine Abuse Registry
The ChildLine abuse registry contains the names of all reported child abuse allegations in the state. Your name will be listed in this state-wide database until a report is found “unsubstantiated.” If it is, the state will eventually expunge your name from the list; they have 120 days to do so, But while the report findings are pending, your name will be on the ChildLine abuse registry. However, if you begin receiving services, even if the report was unfounded, your name may continue to appear on the list. This can have consequences for you professionally and personally. It can affect your employment, particularly if you work with children, your ability to volunteer with children, your ability to volunteer at your children's school, and more All this can happen even without any substantiated findings or criminal charges against you.
If the Child, Youth, and Family Services department finds substantial evidence of child abuse or neglect, they must report it to the police. As a result, you could find yourself the subject of a criminal investigation for child abuse or neglect in addition to the ChildLine investigation.
- Abuse in Pennsylvania Under Pennsylvania law, child abuse is knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly harming a child or doing anything which creates a risk of harm or failing to do something that creates harm or a risk of harm. Some examples that may be child abuse include:
- Withholding medical treatment,
- Forcefully slapping, striking, or shaking a child under one,
- Leaving a child unsupervised with someone you know or should have known is a registered sex offender or a violent sexual offender,
- Sexually assaulting a child or allowing someone else to do so,
- Interfering with a child's breathing,
- Unreasonably restraining or confining a child,
- Kicking, biting, throwing, stabbing, cutting, or burning a child,
- Failing to act while someone else harms your child.
23 Pa. C.S. § 6303 (2014). Serious physical neglect may also qualify as child abuse under Pennsylvania law.
- Neglect in Pennsylvania Serious physical neglect in Pennsylvania includes:
- A repeated, prolonged or egregious failure to supervise a child in a manner that is appropriate considering the child's developmental age and abilities.
- The failure to provide a child with adequate essentials of life, including food, shelter, or medical care.
23 Pa. C.S. § 6303 (2018). This could include failing to seek medical treatment for a child, adequately feeding them, educating them or attending to their special education needs, or supervising them in a matter appropriate for their age.
Loss of Professional Licensing and Jobs
If you work with children or need a background check, your appearance on the ChildLine abuse registry can impact your career. The registry is open for criminal background checks. Moreover, if you work directly with children as a teacher, medical professional, coach, or religious leader or are responsible for the care, guidance, supervision, or welfare of children, you must pass a clearance every 60 months. If you hold a professional license, you may even be required to report the investigation and update the investigation to your professional organization, or you could lose your license.
Custody and Visitation
An ongoing ChildLine investigation can also affect your custody and visitation agreement if you are going through a divorce or have shared custody of your children. A judge may not award you custody if the report is substantiated or still pending. A judge could also order supervised visitation or no visitation at all.
You Need an Experienced Pennsylvania Family Attorney
If you and your family are facing a ChildLine investigation or considering making a report, you don't have to go through this alone. An experienced family attorney, well-versed in handling ChildLine and CYF investigations can help. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his skilled 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.