An accusation of child abuse or neglect is an incredibly serious claim. If someone has implicated you in this regard, you are no doubt experiencing a range of emotions – perhaps confusion, betrayal, fear, stress, or shame. You are likely wondering whether your name will be out there in public for others – employers, family members, neighbors, or friends – associating you with harming a child.
Child abuse should never be taken lightly, but the unfortunate truth is that sometimes unsubstantiated claims are put forth for reasons including manipulation, revenge, or a desire to control someone, such as in a toxic relationship, breakup, or divorce.
In Pennsylvania, anyone can make an anonymous report of suspected child abuse through the state's “ChildLine” reporting system. Those making reports can do so online or over the phone. Cases are then distributed to the county with jurisdiction. In 2021, only 7.4% of cases reported by “permissive reporters” (as opposed to “mandated reporters,” such as teachers, social workers, daycare providers, or healthcare professionals) were found to be “substantiated” by local child protective services agencies. That's 535 cases out of 7,235 reports – a number everyone would like to see reduced to zero, but it does illustrate a point.
It can be very difficult to hold people who file false child abuse reports accountable for doing so, which means anyone can report you when you haven't actually done anything wrong. They might knowingly file a false report, or they might genuinely think you've done something and be wrong about that. And in the meantime, these false and malicious reports need to be investigated just as any other child abuse report is.
Accused of Suspected Child Abuse in Carbon County
In Carbon County, Pennsylvania, Carbon County Children & Youth is charged with investigating all reports of suspected child abuse and neglect placed on the ChildLine registry. In 2021, there were 284 reported incidents of suspected child abuse and neglect – or 21 reports for every 1,000 children – through the ChildLine registry in Carbon County. Of these, 16% were found to be substantiated after being investigated. The next year, 2022, the number of reports rose by 34 to 318, of which 23 were substantiated. To bring awareness to this issue, Carbon County Commissioners declared April to be Child Abuse Prevention Month in Carbon County.
If you live in Carbon 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 put on the ChildLine registry for no good reason.
What is ChildLine?
Pennsylvania uses a statewide child abuse reporting system called ChildLine. The ChildLine system takes 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.
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 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, you need to act.
What Happens When Someone Submits a Report to ChildLine?
Once ChildLine forwards the report to the county with jurisdiction, the county will then open an investigation, starting with screening the claim for relevance. If deemed relevant, you may be interviewed, possibly multiple times, in addition to household members, family, and friends.
It is at the conclusion of this investigative process that authorities make the determination of whether to add your name to the ChildLine Registry. If this happens, potential employers, for example, have access to the registry in order to screen candidates. This may be done without you being aware or having a chance to appeal it first. At this point, your name is out there, linking you with suspected child abuse or neglect – an action that can have far-reaching consequences for your professional and personal future. Responsible or not, this isn't a stigma that disappears overnight, if ever. Simply being associated with harming children, even if the report is found to be without merit after the investigation, can cause irreparable damage to one's career and relationships.
What Are Mandatory Reporters?
In Pennsylvania, there are two types of reports of child abuse and neglect – “mandated” or “mandatory” reporters and “permissive” reporters. Examples of the former include clergy, teachers, law enforcement officers, and childcare workers. They are legally responsible for making a report if they witness anything or receive information that would support a reported case of child abuse. Their names will not be available to you (they are kept confidential), and they are protected from civil liability, the exception being if they maliciously submitted a report.
The latter category of reporters, “permissive” reporters, can file reports anonymously. In Pennsylvania, anyone with a “reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse” is encouraged to make a report, whether through ChildLine, their local child welfare agency, or law enforcement. The ability to report anonymously may contribute to the high number of unsubstantiated reports since there isn't a way to hold people accountable for filing reports for malicious reasons.
What Can I Do if Someone Has Accused Me of Child Abuse?
First, you have rights, including the right to be represented by an attorney. Decide if you feel confident navigating this alone or whether you would prefer to have an experienced legal team defending you. Either way, it is paramount that you cooperate with authorities and any investigations that take place. That said, be careful when responding to questions and providing the information they are seeking. This is an opportunity to tell your story and your side with accuracy, caution, and a calm demeanor. This is an area where many people find it helpful to have legal guidance. Joseph Lento and the Criminal Defense Team at the Lento Law Firm can help guide you in how to respond.
Second, be prepared for your name to be added to the public ChildLine registry if authorities believe the report can be confirmed, and you did not appeal the finding. You may not be able to prevent this from happening, but you can control the way you react, and you do have the option of appealing. Again, this is an area where it pays to be represented by an attorney skilled in defending clients against claims of child abuse and neglect. Dealing with the logistics of defending a serious claim like this can be time-consuming and taxing. But it can also be mentally and emotionally draining, so seeking support from professionals in this situation is never a bad idea. The Lento Law Firm Team can help guide and support you during the appeals process.
At this stage, you may have the opportunity to file an appeal within a 90-day time period. A successful appeal could, at least temporarily, keep your name from appearing on the ChildLine registry.
There are two ways to go about this – requesting that the Office of Children, Youth and Families (OCYF) conduct an administrative review of the finding against you. The Northeast Regional office in Scranton oversees this process for Carbon County. The other is to instead request a hearing in front of the OCYF's Bureau of Hearings and Appeal (BHA). Finally, you can further appeal the BHA decision to the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
This is an opportunity to bring forward evidence supporting your defense and assertion that the finding should be reversed. In an appeal, you will need to indicate and explain that the incident(s) described in the report did not correctly state what happened. You will have an opportunity to explain, in writing, what did happen. You will also have a chance to list witnesses and what you believe they would say in a hearing or what evidence they might bring if subpoenaed. Finally, you can attach exhibits to your appeal that support your case. An experienced ChildLine attorney will help you put together a strong case.
Here, the state has to have “clear and convincing” evidence against you. Failure to do so could result in a reversal and your name being removed from the ChildLine registry.
In the opposite scenario – the state prevails – you have 15 days to request a review of the appeal by the Department of Human Services. It's not a futile idea; out of 86 appeals, 34 were overturned by the Secretary of DHS.
The appeal process is not something you want to manage by yourself. You need the help of an experienced attorney who understands how these decisions are reviewed and who can help put together the most effective appeal for you. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team have been helping people in Carbon County and all over Pennsylvania appeal ChildLine
registry listings for years. They can help you make sure your appeal is as compelling and likely to succeed as possible.
Expunging Your ChildLine Registry Record
If your name was added to ChildLine some time ago, it may not be too late to get it removed. The Secretary of the DHS could do so if new evidence has emerged supporting your defense or if they believe you do not present a risk.
Joseph D. Lento and his Lento Criminal Defense Team bring years of experience to the table, successfully defending clients who dispute the charges against them in Carbon County and throughout Pennsylvania.
Legal counsel should be on hand when you are investigated, ensuring the questions are stated clearly and helping you understand each question before you answer. It's best to make arrangements for this before the investigation begins, as it's difficult to undo any harm you may have caused in your case after the fact. The Lento Criminal Defense Team will also stay in communication with the investigator to avoid surprises and know as soon as possible what updates there are to the investigation and what the outcome was.
If you have received notice that a ChildLine report has been filed against you and that you face being investigated by Carbon County Children & Youth, or you've been investigated and added to the Childline registry, contact Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Criminal Defense Team, which has years of experience with Pennsylvania's child abuse reporting system and can protect your rights during this trying time. They understand the ins and outs of the system and how it can be manipulated in the context of custody disputes or divorce hearings, or in cases of revenge.
When you're facing grave accusations like child abuse or neglect, it pays to get help from a legal team who has been down this road before and can help protect your rights. Call Joseph D. Lento today at 888.535.3686, or through the Lento Law Firm to set up a confidential consultation. The Lento Criminal Defense Team is here to listen and to help.