One of the most frightening and stressful things that can happen to anyone is being accused of child abuse. Whether the accusation comes from a partner, former partner, friend, neighbor, or someone else, the experience of being under investigation because someone has reported you as a possible child abuser can result in sleepless nights, huge amounts of stress, and mental scars that may stay with you long after the investigation ends.
And while there is no argument that children often need (and deserve) to be protected from actual abusers, the sad fact is that many people will make unwarranted abuse claims as a tactic in a divorce, custody, or other types of dispute. This happens more often than you might think; in 2021, for example, there were 7235 reports of suspected child abuse filed in Pennsylvania by so-called “permissive reporters” – ordinary people who aren't required by law to report suspected child abuse to the authorities. Of these 7235 reports, only 7.4% of them were deemed “substantiated” by the local child protective services agency. While that's not to say that all of the other reports were illegitimate, it's possible that many of them were.
Part of the problem is that in Pennsylvania, anyone can make an anonymous report of suspected child abuse through the state's “ChildLine” reporting system. This means that it can be very difficult to hold people who file malicious child abuse reports accountable for doing so. And in the meantime, these false and malicious reports need to be investigated just as any other child abuse report is.
The mental toll this can take on those suspected of child abuse – even if they're eventually cleared – is significant. Once investigated, people wrongfully accused of child abuse may often feel as though they are constantly looking over their shoulder, waiting for another unwarranted accusation to be filed against them, and the process starts all over again.
Accused of Suspected Child Abuse in Bucks County
In Bucks County, suspected child abuse reports are investigated and managed by the Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services Agency. The BCCYSSA will investigate suspected child abuse reported through the Pennsylvania ChildLine system and otherwise. In 2021, for example, there were 938 reports of suspected child abuse brought in Bucks County; of those, 90 were substantiated after an investigation.
If you live in Bucks County and receive a notice that you are under investigation for suspected child abuse or that you've been placed on the ChildLine registry as a result of a child abuse investigation, you should contact an attorney who is experienced in helping people who find themselves in this kind of situation. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team have years of experience representing clients who find themselves being investigated for suspected child abuse or placed on the ChildLine registry for no good reason.
What the ChildLine System Is
Pennsylvania has established a statewide child abuse reporting system called ChildLine. The ChildLine system supports reports of suspected child abuse filed online or over the phone and is available 24/7. When ChildLine receives a report of suspected child abuse, it will forward the report to whatever agency is responsible for investigating it; in the case of reports of abuse occurring in Bucks County, for example, ChildLine will forward the report to the BCCYSSA.
ChildLine also maintains a list of individuals determined to be responsible for substantiated reports of child abuse. The information on the ChildLine registry is available to employers checking the background of existing or potential employees. In many cases, however, people are placed on the ChildLine registry before they have any chance to appeal the decision. That's why it's important to pay close attention if you receive a notice that you're being investigated for suspected child abuse or that your name has been placed on the ChildLine registry.
Who Can Make a ChildLine Report
While anybody can make a ChildLine report, there are two classes of reporters established by Pennsylvania law: “mandated” reporters and “permissive” reporters.
Mandated reporters are people who work in certain professions and are required by law to report suspected child abuse. Healthcare workers, teachers, law enforcement officers, clergy, and daycare workers are examples of the many different types of mandated reporters. Because mandated reporters can face criminal liability if they fail to report suspected child abuse when they have received information or witness incidents that would support such a report. Pennsylvania law assumes that a mandated report of child abuse is made in good faith, and it protects mandated reporters from civil liability unless it's proven that they maliciously filed a false report. It also keeps confidential the name of the mandated reporter making a ChildLine report.
Permissive reporters are anyone else who is not a mandated reporter. Pennsylvania law encourages people who have “reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse” to report it to ChildLine or to local child welfare or law enforcement authorities. Permissive reporters can make their reports over the phone and may make their reports anonymously.
What Happens After a ChildLine Report is Made
When the Pennsylvania ChildLine reporting line receives a report of suspected child abuse occurring in Bucks County, it will forward the report to the BCCYSSA, which will start an investigation. The first step will be internal, where the BCCYSSA investigator determines whether the report describes the kind of alleged behavior that constitutes child abuse. Reports that satisfy this initial screening are then investigated. It's at this point that things can get very difficult and stressful for the person being investigated.
A child abuse investigation can feel extremely invasive, especially when the report has been filed maliciously, and the person being investigated has not been abusive towards their or anyone else's children. If you have been reported for suspected child abuse, you're likely to be interviewed in depth by a BCCYSSA investigator at your home. Others living with you, including children, may also be interviewed. Your friends and family might also be questioned, which can add tremendously to the stress of the situation. There may be follow-up interviews, and the process may stretch out for some time before a decision is made about whether to add your name to the ChildLine registry.
What You Can Do if You Are Being Investigated by a ChildLine Investigator
You have rights while you are under investigation, and one of those rights is to be represented by an attorney. Because it's not unusual for investigators to try to make you think they are your friend and to ask questions that are unclear or misleading, it can be very helpful to have an experienced attorney with you when you are interviewed. An attorney can make sure the process is done fairly, that the investigator asks clear questions, and that you understand each question before you answer it. And while the investigator may try to get you to answer questions without having your attorney present, it's almost always in your best interest to make sure your lawyer is there.
Joseph D. Lento has years of experience helping people who are under investigation by child services and other types of government agencies in Bucks County and all over Pennsylvania. He and the Lento Law Firm Team are ready to be by your side during these stressful interview situations, and they will also stay in contact with the investigator so that you know as soon as possible what the outcome of the investigation is. In some cases, they can provide additional information to the investigator that can help resolve the situation if the investigator has failed to uncover the information themselves.
So while you should, of course, cooperate when contacted by a BCCYSSA investigator, you also need to be careful about how you respond to their questions and what information you give them. Having an attorney by your side can help you balance being cooperative with protecting your rights.
What Happens if a ChildLine Investigator Decides an Abuse Report Against You is Confirmed
If a BCCYSSA investigator determines that you may have committed child abuse, your name can be placed on the ChildLine registry almost immediately. Depending on when you receive the notice, you might not realize your name is on the registry until after it's already happened, leaving you with the serious problem of being named as someone who has a substantiated report of child abuse filed against them. Whenever you receive a notice that you're to be added to the ChildLine registry, your next step is to appeal that decision. There are several options when it comes to appeals.
How to Appeal a ChildLine Abuse Finding
You will typically have 90 days to appeal a ChildLine registry determination, but those 90 days can move quickly, so it's important to act as soon as you are notified of the decision against you. Initially, you have two appeal options; one is to ask the Office of Children, Youth and Families (OCYF) to conduct an administrative review of the finding against you. The other is to bypass this step and ask for a hearing before the OCYF's Bureau of Hearings and Appeal (BHA). And finally, the BHA decision can be further appealed to the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
For Bucks County, BHA appeals will most likely be heard in Philadelphia at the Philadelphia State Office Building. It's important to understand that this isn't a court proceeding, even though it may feel like one; it's an administrative hearing.
At the BHA hearing, you will have a chance to present evidence on your own behalf that the ChildLine registry finding should be reversed. The burden is on the state to provide “clear and convincing” evidence to the hearing officer that you committed the acts alleged in the ChildLine report. If the state fails to do so, the initial determination will be reversed, and your name will be expunged from the ChildLine registry.
If the BHA hearing is not in your favor, you have 15 days to request that the Secretary of the Department of Human Services review the appeal. This final option is worth considering if the BHA has ruled against you; of the 86 appeals that the Secretary of the DHS reviewed and decided in 2021, 34 were overturned.
The appeal process is not something you want to attempt by yourself. You need the help of an experienced attorney who understands how these decisions are reviewed and overturned and who can work with you to put together the most effective appeal possible. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team have been helping people in Bucks County and all over Pennsylvania appeal ChildLine registry listings for years. They can help you make sure your appeal is as strong and compelling as possible.
Expunging Your ChildLine Registry Entry
Even if it's been some time since your name was added to the ChildLine registry, you may be able to get the listing expunged. The Secretary of the DHS may do this in two situations: where there is newly-discovered evidence that indicates the initial report of abuse was inaccurate, or where it's established that you do not present a risk of child abuse and there is no public purpose to keeping your name on the ChildLine registry.
How Attorney Joseph D. Lento Can Help
If you've been notified that a ChildLine report has been filed against you and that you're under investigation by the Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services, or if you've already been investigated and you've been notified that your name will now be listed on the ChildLine registry, contact Joseph D. Lento at once. He and the Lento Law Firm Team have years of experience with Pennsylvania's child abuse reporting system, and they can help you protect your rights during this very difficult and stressful time. They understand how the system works and how it is often used and abused by people seeking to gain an advantage in custody or divorce proceedings or by people who want to “get back” at someone.
When you're facing serious allegations such as those involving child abuse, you need the help of an attorney who has been there before and can make sure your rights are protected and respected. Joseph D. Lento is that attorney. Call him today at 888.535.3686, or through the Lento Law Firm online contact form, to set up a confidential consultation. The Lento Law Firm Team is there to listen and to help.