Being a member of the clergy in Pennsylvania is, in a very real sense, a sacred trust. Regardless of the religion or denomination in which you serve, people are looking to you for spiritual guidance and nurture, and if they have children, they are often entrusting their children to your guidance as well. In short, by wearing that mantle, you're assumed to be an upstanding member of the community and one to be trusted.
That's why it can be so devastating to be notified that someone has referred you to ChildLine on suspicions of child abuse.
The possible impacts cannot be overstated here. Personally, you may experience a range of emotions, from shock and disbelief. The psychological effects can extend to your family, who may also face scrutiny and judgment from others. Furthermore, the potential damage to your career and reputation is immense, as you may face suspension, loss of position, or even expulsion from your religious order. In some cases, legal repercussions may follow, including criminal charges and civil lawsuits, adding to the emotional and financial burden.
Perhaps the most unnerving thing about this is that your life and vocation could be upended, not from having abused anyone, but simply from being accused. Once you're reported to ChildLine, you're placed under intense scrutiny by Child, Youth, and Family Services (CYF), and your name is automatically placed on the ChildLine registry labeling you as a suspected abuser. Not only could this impact your ability to serve as a clergy member, but if the allegations of abuse extend to your own children, they could even be taken from you as well--all regardless of whether or not you're even charged with a crime. In one sense, it's like being labeled guilty until proven innocent.
Your Legal Defense Against Child Abuse Accusations: The Lento Law Firm
Although the situation you find yourself in may seem unfair and perilous, hiring an experienced attorney early in the process can significantly reduce the damage to your personal and professional life. Attorney-Advisor Joseph D. Lento and his Criminal Defense Team have many years of experience defending people who are facing child abuse allegations. If you have been reported to ChildLine, we can work tirelessly to guard your rights, develop a potent defense, minimize the fallout, and defend you vigorously against any criminal charges that may arise. Reach out to the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 to arrange a consultation.
ChildLine's Operations in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services established ChildLine as a 24/7 hotline committed to ensuring the safety of children who may be experiencing child abuse. This service enables the public to report any suspicious events or patterns that could indicate child abuse or neglect. Moreover, certain professionals, including healthcare providers, law enforcement officers, school employees, and even other members of the clergy, are legally required to report any signs or information regarding child abuse to ChildLine.
Upon receiving a child abuse report involving you, ChildLine forwards the case to the local Child, Youth, and Family (CYF) Services within 24 hours for a thorough investigation of the claims. The investigative process typically includes questioning you, home visits and interviews with the child and their family, document subpoenas, and other methods of gathering information. If you're suspected of abusing your own child, the CYF caseworker may remove the child from your care to ensure their safety. Should the assessment reveal significant evidence of abuse or neglect, CYF will then transfer the case to local prosecutors for the possible filing of criminal charges against you.
What Constitutes Child Abuse in Pennsylvania?
In Pennsylvania, the Child Protective Services Law defines “child abuse” as any intentional act or omission that causes harm or exposes a child to the risk of preventable harm. This harm may manifest as physical injuries or psychological distress. The range of actions classified as child abuse is extensive and includes, but is not limited to:
- Inflicting physical harm on a child.
- Inducing emotional distress in a child.
- Impeding a child's breathing.
- Unjustifiably restraining a child.
- Neglecting a child's essential medical needs.
- Assaulting a child younger than one year old.
- Sexual assault or facilitating such an assault on a child.
- Leaving a child unsupervised with a registered sex offender.
- Failing to provide adequate supervision and cater to a child's physical needs.
How a Clergy Member May Be Reported to ChildLine
Anyone aware of your clergy status and witnessing questionable behavior may report you to ChildLine. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Family members
- Members of your congregation
- Other clergy members
Moreover, certain individuals interacting with you and your children are legally mandated to report any suspected child abuse to ChildLine. These individuals include:
- Social workers
- Medical professionals treating the children
- School employees
- Clergy members or religious practitioners
- Employees or volunteers of children's community programs
What Occurs If You Are Reported to ChildLine
ChildLine treats every child abuse allegation with the utmost seriousness and responds promptly to protect children from potential or ongoing harm. If you are reported to ChildLine, you can expect the disruption to your personal and professional life to be sudden and extensive. Here is what you can expect:
Your name will be automatically added to the ChildLine registry as a suspected child abuser.
Per Pennsylvania law, regardless of the allegations' validity, your name is entered into the state database as a suspected child abuser as soon as someone reports you. While this registry is not public, it is accessible by numerous agencies you may work with. Your name remains on the list indefinitely unless successfully expunged—even if not accused again.
CYF initiates a thorough investigation.
This process typically lasts 30 days and sometimes longer. The CYF caseworker will interview you, the child, the parents (if the alleged victim is not your child), and any relevant witnesses; They may also review organizational documents, police records, medical records, and other pertinent documents. If the alleged victim is your own child, CYF has the authority to remove the child into protective custody as it sees fit.
CYF determines the outcome based on the evidence they find.
When the investigation concludes, CYF will make one of the following determinations regarding the allegations against you:
- Unfounded: Insufficient evidence to support the child abuse allegation.
- Indicated: Some evidence found, but lacking definitive proof.
- Founded: Clear evidence supporting the child abuse allegations.
The Department of Human Services will send you a notification by mail of the CYF findings.
Potential Criminal and/or Civil Consequences
If the child abuse claims are substantiated (i.e., deemed “indicated” or “founded”), the case will be forwarded to local prosecutors for further evaluation. Be prepared to face civil or criminal charges—or both. A conviction may result in penalties such as fines, imprisonment, and a criminal record.
Long-Term Repercussions of a ChildLine Notification in Pennsylvania
Being reported to ChildLine can have a profound and long-lasting impact on your personal and professional life. In addition to the pervasive social stigma associated with being labeled an abuser, you will possibly face potential criminal charges, which could cost you your freedom. Although the state can't strip you of your employment within a religious order, you could still face disciplinary action within your organization, up to and including being fired from your position. And while the ChildLine registry is not available to the general public, it can be accessed by specific government agencies, employers, educational institutions, and child welfare organizations. Here are some possible consequences if your name appears on this registry.
You'll be disqualified from contact with children within your employment. Even if you are not officially removed from your clerical responsibilities, the State of Pennsylvania may still restrict your contact with children, which can complicate your duties considerably. You'll also be barred from employment in any other job or profession that has direct contact with children, including teaching positions, daycare centers, healthcare facilities, etc. Professionals who work with children must receive state clearance to do so, and anyone whose name is registered with ChildLine cannot get that clearance.
You'll be prohibited from other community activities involving children. Imagine your church hosting a charitable outreach event for children, but you are forbidden to participate, although you are the pastor of the church. If your name is on ChildLine, this scenario is a real possibility. You'll also be unable to volunteer for other community activities involving kids, including programs like Little League, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Boy Scouts, etc.
You won't be able to adopt or be a foster parent. Being registered on ChildLine automatically disqualifies you from these activities.
You may face the loss of custody of your biological children. If you have children of your own, a child abuse allegation could lead to the removal of your own children from your home, even if the accusation does not involve abuse towards your own child. If the child's other parent initiates a custody dispute against you, your presence on the ChildLine registry may negatively influence the judge's decision regarding your suitability as a parent. This could potentially result in losing custody and even visitation rights.
Is My Name Permanently Listed on the ChildLine Registry?
By default, all names in ChildLine are considered permanent and lifelong unless successfully expunged. There are primarily two ways in which expunction can occur:
- If CYF deems the complaint “unfounded”: In cases where accusations are unsubstantiated, your name should be automatically expunged from ChildLine after 120 days unless you receive social services during the investigation. In such cases, your name remains permanently on the registry with a notation of “UNFOUNDED.”
- If you file a successful appeal for expungement: If the CYF determination is “indicated” or “founded,” the abuse report stays on ChildLine until the alleged victim turns 23 years old, but your name remains on the list for life. However, if you file an appeal within 90 days and it is successful, both the abuse report and your name may be expunged from ChildLine.
Procedure to Appeal for Name Expungement from ChildLine
You have the legal right to appeal if the CYF report comes back as “indicated” or “founded.” Your appeal occurs in two stages:
- Filing a hearing request: The initial action involves formally submitting a request for an administrative hearing to review your case. This includes explaining the reasons for your appeal to be removed from ChildLine. This appeal must be drafted and mailed to the Department of Human Services within 90 days from your notification date.
- Presenting your case at the administrative hearing: An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) presides over this hearing. Your attorney will advocate for your case, presenting arguments and supporting evidence for why the charges against you were unjust and your name should be expunged. The hearing concludes with the ALJ's final ruling. If the judgment favors you, your name will be expunged from ChildLine.
It is crucial to file your appeal within 90 days of your notification date from DHS. Failure to meet this deadline will result in the forfeit of this opportunity, and your name will remain on ChildLine for life. Due to this short window, hiring an experienced attorney is your best hope for a successful appeal.
How the Lento Law Firm Can Help
Regardless of any disciplinary action your religious order may take, being labeled a child abuser as a member of the clergy can do permanent damage to your career--even more so if criminal charges are filed. Your best chance of minimizing this damage lies with the help of an experienced child abuse defense attorney. Joseph D. Lento and his Criminal Defense Team have provided legal assistance to individuals accused of child abuse in Pennsylvania for many years. We understand the sensitivity and complexity of these cases and will take every appropriate step to minimize the impact on your life, family, and future--from offering guidance throughout the CYF investigation to helping you avoid criminal prosecution or conviction and coordinating appeals to get your name expunged from ChildLine.