Finding out that you're the subject of a ChildLine abuse investigation can be both terrifying and baffling. You adore your children and would never mistreat them. You don't even know who accused you or how you could have gotten on the ChildLine list. You are ready to comply with the investigation, but one horrifying thought keeps turning over and over in your mind: what if the investigators don't believe me?
The unfortunate truth is that a vast number of parents and people in Pennsylvania end up on the ChildLine abuse registry, even when there's no conclusive evidence of mistreatment. Reports from the Department of Human Services show that over 90 percent of those listed on the ChildLine registry as "indicated" for abuse successfully remove their names on appeal.
But these results don't mean you shouldn't take the allegations against you seriously. On the contrary, being named on the ChildLine registry can negatively affect your life in numerous ways, even if the allegations are false. Moreover, once your name is on this registry, it could remain there indefinitely.
If you have been notified that you're the subject of a ChildLine investigation or that you've been placed ChildLine abuse registry, talk to an experienced family lawyer immediately. A skilled family lawyer is crucial to ensuring that someone is in your corner, fighting for the truth to come out and clear your good name.
What is the Pennsylvania ChildLine Registry?
ChildLine and Abuse Registry is a mandated Pennsylvania child protective services program designed to receive referrals related to child abuse and child well-being concerns. The program receives reports of suspected abuse 24 hours a day, seven days per week, verbally or electronically.
A specially trained intake caseworker answers each referral and interviews the caller to assess the most appropriate next step. The caseworker may decide to forward the report to an appropriate county agency, such as Children, Youth and Families, for an investigation of abuse. If the allegations suggest the child's well-being is at risk but is not being abused, the caseworker may contact General Protective Service or another social agency for an assessment. The caseworker will contact law enforcement officials in situations that suggest a child may be in imminent danger or a crime has been committed.
The caseworker must report the information to an appropriate agency within 24 hours of the original complaint.
Who Reported Me to ChildLine?
Anyone can contact ChildLine to report suspected abuse or mistreatment. A person who sees you interacting with your child in a supermarket or doctor's office in a manner they felt was suspicious may call the hotline. Sometimes, a family member, friend, or community member who suspects abuse may call the hotline.
State law requires certain people to report suspected abuse. In Pennsylvania, mandated reporters include anyone who has regular contact with children through their employment or other means, including teachers and school employees, medical care providers, religious and spiritual leaders, law enforcement officials, social workers, attorneys, and foster parents. Mandated reporters are required to contact ChildLine or another child welfare agency when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child under their care, supervision, guidance, or training is being abused. About 80 percent of the calls to ChildLine are from mandated reporters.
How Do ChildLine Investigations Proceed?
After ChildLine has given its initial findings to the appropriate social services or law enforcement agency, an investigator will perform a more thorough assessment of the case.
The first step is screening. The agency will examine the available facts to determine whether the case deserves further investigation. If they believe the child could be in imminent danger, they will immediately visit the child's home and remove them if necessary. If the case doesn't appear to have any legs, they can dismiss it as unfounded.
If the agency determines that the case warrants further investigation, within 24 hours, a caseworker will be assigned and schedule a home visit with the family. This visit aims to make a risk assessment and look for signs of mistreatment or abuse. During the home visit, the caseworker will:
- interview each family member and any other possible witnesses in the household
- look for physical evidence of abuse,
- evaluate the safety and general state of your home environment
- look for signs of hazards or illegal activity
- ensure that your children's basic needs are met,
- observe parents' emotional stability,
- and generally observe how the family interacts.
The investigation must be completed within 30 days, although a caseworker may request an additional 30 days if necessary. In the end, the caseworker will assess the level of risk the family presents to the child and whether the initial allegations were “founded," "unfounded," or "indicated."
A “founded” determination means the caseworker found evidence suggesting the allegations are valid and that abuse has occurred. An “unfounded” determination means there was no evidence of abuse or mistreatment, and the case can be dismissed. An “indicated” finding means the caseworker uncovered some suspicious evidence, but they cannot be sure that any abuse occurred.
The caseworker will then report their determination to ChildLine. If a caseworker has deemed your situation is "founded" or "indicated," they will place your name on the child abuse registry. ChildLine will notify you of your status and right to challenge or appeal the findings.
Needless to say, this process is problematic, as an investigator can place you on this list without due process. Due process means you have no meaningful opportunity to defend yourself or explain your situation. What's particularly horrifying about this situation is that the ChildLine registry makes no distinction between types of offenses: parents who spank their children might be on the list, as well as people who have sexually abused children. That's why it's critical to hire a skilled lawyer who will fight tooth and nail to keep your name off the list or get it taken off.
What Are the Potential Consequences of Being Named on the Childline Registry?
Being named on the ChildLine registry can have a wide range of demoralizing consequences that can touch almost every part of your life. At the top of the list is its potential impact on your relationship with your child. If you are divorcing and fighting for custody of your child, having your name on the ChildLine registry will almost certainly work against you. Not only might you lose the custody battle, but the judge might also require you to have supervised visitations or curtail your parental rights in other ways.
The registry could also prevent you from engaging with your child at school or during community activities. If your name is on the list, you might not be allowed to volunteer for school field trips or to help out with extra-curricular activities. Some parents have been crushed to learn that they are no longer welcome to coach their child's sports team or lead their Girl Scout troop.
Being on the list could also affect your current and future employment. If your job or career involves working with children, your employers might feel that having an accused abuser on staff is too risky or looks bad. You may have to look for a new job that doesn't involve working with children since most prospective employers won't hire a person whose background check reveals their name on the abuse registry. This outcome can be emotionally and financially devastating, especially for people who have spent many long years being educated and trained to work with children. You may have to find work in an industry that pays less and might not capture your interest or heart as much as your previous job.
Similarly, being on the registry may mean missing specific educational opportunities. If you are preparing for a career that involves contact with children, your name on the ChildLine registry could prevent you from winning scholarships or internships or entering special career-related programs.
An often underestimated consequence of being unjustly named on the abuse registry is the emotional fallout. Like most people, you will likely be terrified that your children will be taken away from you, or that you might face criminal charges. As you mull these potential consequences over in your mind, you might have trouble sleeping, concentrating at work, or lose your appetite. You might find yourself stigmatized in your community if it becomes known that your name is on the list. If it is not known, you may live in constant fear that people will find out. A name that's “indicated” will stay on the registry until the child in question is 23 years old.
This heavy emotional weight can take its toll. It's not unusual for people under undue stress to turn to unhealthy habits such as substance abuse or fall into a depression. It's better to take control of the situation as best you can from the beginning and hire an experienced family lawyer to represent you and fight to remove your name.
How Do I Protect My Rights During a Childline Investigation?
When you learn that you're being investigated for child abuse, immediately hiring an attorney is critical to protecting your rights. Even if you think the accusations are absurd, having an experienced family lawyer on your side can help investigators see the absurdity of these claims as well.
An attorney experienced with ChildLine investigations can help you understand what to expect from the process, how to prepare for a home visit and interview, and answer any questions you have. Start looking for a lawyer from the moment you learn you're the subject of an investigation–do not wait until a caseworker has reached a “founded” or “indicated” determination.
A lawyer can also help ensure that caseworker uses the appropriate standards to assess your situation. The social services agency has the burden of proving by “clear and convincing evidence” that the abuse occurred before listing you as "founded." Clear and convincing evidence means that the allegations are substantially more likely to be true than untrue. Your lawyer will examine the investigator's evidence and point out flaws and weaknesses in their proof or reasoning. They can also help ensure that the investigator sees and considers facts supporting your side of the story.
If your name has made it onto the ChildLine list, an attorney will be crucial in appealing the determination and having your name removed from the registry, both of which can be complicated endeavors. But a skilled attorney will know the proper steps to take and will do everything possible to restore your good name.
How Can I Get My Name Removed From the Registry?
The process for removing your name from a ChildLine registry is called an expunction. If the allegations against you are considered “founded” or “indicated,” the report will remain on the list until the child at issue turns 23. If the allegations are deemed "unfounded," your name will not go on the list, but ChildLine will keep the report on file for one year from the date of the report before being expunged.
To request an expunction, you must submit a request for an expunction within 90 days of receiving the notice of the determination against you. If you have timely submitted the request, you will receive an administrative hearing where you can make your case for removing your name. In over 90 percent of cases, the court grants an expunction to people with an "indicated" determination.
If you miss the deadline, however, you will not be able to request an expunction or appeal, and your name will remain on the registry indefinitely. Thus, you must appeal as soon as possible after receiving the determination notice. Unfortunately, the expunction process is ridiculously complicated. To ensure it's completed correctly, you will need the guidance of a lawyer experienced with ChildLine cases.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento Can Help if You've Been “ChildLined”
If you are facing a child abuse investigation or want to appeal an unfavorable report from ChildLine, Joseph D. Lento is ready to fight to restore your good name and bring you peace of mind. Attorney Lento understands the frustration and intricacies of the ChildLine system and knows how to ensure that your voice is heard and that you are treated fairly. Contact the Law Offices of Joseph D. Lento today to find out how we can help. Call 888.535.3686 or contact us online. We're ready to help fight for your future.