When you go to open your mail, you probably don't expect to receive a letter informing you that you're under investigation for a ChildLine report. You may not have ever heard of ChildLine, but that doesn't mean that the investigation is unimportant. ChildLine Appeals aren't easy, and a ChildLine investigation can ripple out into all areas of your life. A listing on the ChildLine registry can have concrete results such as negatively impacting employment and volunteer opportunities, to say nothing of child custody. Additionally, a ChildLine investigation and listing can have collateral consequences—that is, impacts that are beyond the immediate results but still have significant detrimental effects.
In this guide, we'll offer a very brief overview of ChildLine and what occurs during an investigation, and then we'll delve into the various parts of your life that could go sideways as a result of an investigation or a listing on the registry. You may find that one specific section speaks to your circumstances or reading through all of them might be helpful. Whatever your particular situation, what's most important is that you get assistance so that you don't have to navigate these challenging allegations alone. It's critical that you have someone who can help you protect your rights to due process so that you don't have to suffer damaging ChildLine consequences. Keep your record clear and your reputation clean. Retain premier Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm now.
What Is ChildLine?
ChildLine is a Pennsylvania state-wide program that has been set up to receive “child abuse referrals and general child wellbeing concerns and transmit the information quickly to the appropriate investigating agency.” Those who have concerns can make a report to ChildLine either electronically or by calling and leaving a message. ChildLine can receive reports of suspected abuse or neglect 24/7.
ChildLine concerns are handled by the child protective services section of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Services; within the past six years, ChildLine has received, on average, more than 170,000 reports. Of those reports, the 2020 Child Protective Services Report stated just about 7% of those reports were substantiated. That means that about 93% of reports remained unsubstantiated. When things as serious as your reputation and future are at stake, that's a very high number and frequency of unsubstantiated reports.
Missing Due Process
Many states have programs similar to Pennsylvania's ChildLine. New York's system is the State Central Register, for example. The goal of these systems is a noble one: to protect children. Protection of the most vulnerable populations is critical.
However, in the unfortunate way that Pennsylvania state officials set up ChildLine, the system doesn't offer due process to any of the adults who are implicated in a ChildLine report. Due process generally means you get notice of the allegation and a fair opportunity to dispute and correct it. But with ChildLine, you may not even learn that ChildLine is ruining your reputation and destroying your opportunities.
Other similar systems provide due process. Pennsylvania's Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA, also protects children. However, in order for state officials to place your name in the SORNA registry, prosecutors must have criminally convicted you. You can't suffer a criminal conviction without substantial due process. You'll know if prosecutors charge you with a sex crime, and you'll have every opportunity to defend and defeat it. SORNA offers defendants better protection than ChildLine. If you learn that you face a ChildLine report and investigation, retain Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm before you must deal with a ChildLine report's serious consequences.
How ChildLine Reports Get Started
Now, you may be asking yourself how a Childline report would happen in the first place. Pennsylvania, like other states, mandates that people occupying certain positions report any sexual abuse concerns they encounter. These mandated reporters face loss of their license or employment if they do not take action. Additionally, they usually receive annual training on how to identify suspected abuse or neglect. Some examples of mandated reporters include:
- School employees, such as teachers, aides, and janitorial staff
- Religious or congregational leaders
- Public library employees
- Medical examiners, coroners, funeral directors
- Foster parents
- Childcare employees
- Licensed or certified medical and health practitioners, such as physicians, therapists, social workers, etc.
- Law enforcement agencies or peace officers
- Any volunteers or employees who work or interact with children
Most ChildLine reports come from mandated reporters, according to the 2020 Child Protective Services Report. Chances are, if you face a ChildLine allegation that you may have sexually abused a child in Pennsylvania, the allegation came from a mandated reporter. But anyone can report suspected child abuse, including separated or divorced spouses, ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends, and neighbors. Anyone else who observes you interact with a child or observes a child with whom they believe you interacted could have a basis for a report.
You can't prevent every report, especially secret reports about which you never learn, or you learn only after your reputation and relationships have already suffered the consequences. And in no circumstances should you ever threaten anyone with harm because they plan to make a report. But the best way to avoid undue consequences of an unsubstantiated ChildLine report can be to retain skilled and experienced defense attorney representation to help you establish your innocence before a ChildLine case gets started.
What Happens When You Are Facing a ChildLine Investigation?
If you do receive notice of a ChildLine investigation, you need to act swiftly. Although you're receiving notice, the investigation has been in motion for several days prior to your notification.
An investigation typically begins as soon as the ChildLine Abuse Registry receives notice of a concern. Within 24 hours, the registry has processed the report of suspected abuse or neglect and passed it along to the appropriate county office. In some counties, this office is called the Office of Youth and Families. In other counties, you might have a Child, Youth, and Family (CYF) Office. Regardless of the name, their function is the same: to work on behalf of children throughout the county.
Once the right county's CYF office receives the report, the office assigns a social worker to investigate the validity of the report. Preliminary interviews, before the investigator even contacts the person alleged to have abused the child, may promptly prove the report to be unsubstantiated.
Determination of Report
Typically, the assigned social worker will continue their investigation until they make a determination. They will essentially determine whether or not there was adequate evidence to substantiate the allegation. The three main findings are indicated, founded, and unfounded. An unfounded report is exactly what it sounds like—there wasn't sufficient evidence to validate the concern. This is frequently referred to as unsubstantiated or dismissed.
An indicated report is one where the social worker has found enough evidence to be concerned that there is “substantial evidence” of the alleged abuse. This evidence is usually based on one of three things: the investigation itself, an admission of guilt on the part of the alleged perpetrator, or available medical evidence. A founded report implies that there is some sort of judicial adjudication involved. This type of report is the most certain of the three findings. You can read more about the types of findings in our Comprehensive Overview.
The county's CYF Office is supposed to notify the person alleged to have committed the abuse of the investigator's finding, whether indicated, founded, or unfounded. So, you've received a notice of the finding, what happens next? Well, if you remain on the registry, or your name isn't properly cleared after the unfounded finding, you can find yourself navigating a plethora of consequences. Let's take a look at a few of these.
The Impact of a Report and Investigation
Realize, first, that any of these three types of findings, whether indicated, founded, or unfounded, can seriously and negatively impact your life. Any ChildLine report, substantiated or unsubstantiated, can have drastic impacts.
The first negative impacts can occur because of the reporter sharing the report with others. Reporters should generally keep their reports of suspected child abuse confidential, sharing the allegations only with the ChildLine system and responding officials. Indeed, spreading false rumors of suspected child abuse among persons who have no reason to know could be defamation. But reporters aren't always so careful. They sometimes tell others like your employer, co-workers, neighbors, and friends, all of whom might change their interaction with you as a consequence. You could suddenly find yourself without the same social, recreational, and even vocational opportunities and relationships.
But the negative impact of a ChildLine report can also occur because of the investigation itself. When a ChildLine social worker interviews your contacts about suspected child abuse, which the social worker will often need to do, that investigation effectively publicizes the allegations among your closest and most trusted circle, right where it could also do you the most harm. You might find your inner circle of family, friends, and close acquaintances suddenly not returning your calls.
The Many Ways a ChildLine Listing Can Affect Your Family Life
An in-process investigation can also drastically impact your family life. If, for example, you are currently involved in any sort of custody case or visitation negotiations, a ChildLine investigation can reflect poorly on you.
A judge might take the investigation into consideration and will most likely consider an indicated or founded finding. The result? You could lose the ability to spend time with your children. Or your time with them could be severely curtailed. You might only be able to spend time with them when a third party is present and can evaluate your behaviors and ensure that the children are safe.
Perhaps you are not currently involved in a custody battle. In circumstances that a social worker deems dire enough, the state can take your children and place them in foster care. This could occur in the midst of an investigation or even at the beginning of an investigation. And, if you've ever wanted to adopt or foster children of your own, that becomes more unlikely with placement on the registry. When families are considering adoption or fostering, their past (and present) life is placed under severe scrutiny. Any ChildLine listing or investigation would have a negative impact on this process.
Finally, one of the best parts of being a child is having your parents participate in events at your school—from field trips to school fairs and fundraisers, parents drive much of the effort and manpower. A listing on the ChildLine registry places this at risk, as your ability to interact with children will be limited. Imagine your child's embarrassment when they're the only one of their classmates who doesn't have a parent present. Or their sadness when they can't share the joy of a field trip to the zoo or the aquarium with you.
How Can a Listing on the ChildLine Registry Impact Your Professional Career?
Perhaps you don't have any children of your own yet. In this case, the familial repercussions might not be of great concern to you. However, you could find that a ChildLine investigation or listing on the registry impacts your future educational and employment opportunities. Let's take a closer look at each of these things.
If you are considering a future career in any program that involves children, you probably have intern hours as part of your requirement. Those who want to teach have student teaching hours. If you're studying to be a pediatrician, you have your rotations and your internships. Any program of study that requires you to interact with children will also have clearance requirements to ensure that those children are kept safe. You might not think of this when you first matriculate at a college or university. Imagine the waste of time and financial resources when it comes time to student teach, and you are unable to because of a previous ChildLine investigation or report.
Of course, there are a significant number of jobs that work with children. Each of these will most likely require a background check. In the state of Pennsylvania, clearances are required for any employee who will be responsible for a child's welfare. They're also mandatory for anyone who has direct engagement and contact with children. This clearance is required—at a minimum—every five years/60 months. Your employment might not involve actually working with children (such as teaching or coaching), but if it involves any contact (such as cleaning or HVAC maintenance or any other work where an individual could encounter children), you will most likely need to acquire the clearance.
Some examples of careers where this should be on your radar include fields such as:
- Educational (teachers, paraeducators, aides, lunchroom monitors, cafeteria workers, administrators)
- Extra-curricular (coaches, summer camps, art camps, science camps, and other after-school subject-specific camps)
- Religious (pastors, youth ministers, directors of religious education, lectors, VBS camp, any work in synagogues, churches, mosques, etc.)
- Childcare settings (nannies, before and after care for schools, daycare, preschool, library programs)
- Medical (nurses, physicians, generalists, specialists, dentists, social workers, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, physical therapists, etc.)
- Military (anything that involves the children of the families who live on base, any roles that are child-adjacent)
Many careers involve interactions with children. If you are on the ChildLine registry, you could find that you're unable to work in your chosen field. The difference between working in your chosen field and working at a fast-food restaurant or a retail store is significant (and even those might be off the table!). If you, like most people, needed to take out loans in order to attend college, you probably have regular installments that you have to pay. Working at a job that pays less than the career you'd intended can make it difficult to keep up your student loan payments, as well as pay for other financial responsibilities such as rent, utilities, food, etc. Defaulting on payments can lead to debt collectors, homelessness, bankruptcy, and more. You don't want to go down that path.
What Are Some of the Social Implications of Placement on the ChildLine Registry?
Now that we've looked at some of the familial and professional implications of placement on the ChildLine registry list, let's examine some of the effects on your social life.
If you have any children, as we mentioned, you won't be able to volunteer at their school for any reason. Additionally, any events that involve children will most likely be off-limits. This means that you won't be able to volunteer for your child's sports team, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, dance club, or any other hobbies they might have. Beyond the actual presence at the events, this means that you'll miss the emotional connection that comes with shared memories.
Even if you don't have children of your own, if you ever want to interact with children, this type of listing could put that at risk. Want to volunteer to coach your nephew's soccer team? Better not be on the ChildLine registry. Have a godchild and want to go on their school field trip? Same thing. Although you may not think that this is a concern now, if at some point in the future, that changes for you, and you do want to participate in that way, it could be too late. Indicated reports of abuse/neglect stay on the registry until the child is 23 years old. That means that your name could stay on the list for a very, very long time.
What Are Some of the Collateral Consequences of a ChildLine Report or Investigation?
Beyond the in-the-moment concrete consequences, there can also be collateral damage. These consequences are secondary and not necessarily a primary consequence. Some areas you might encounter these types of impacts include your social life and your financial life.
Socially, if people ask why you aren't able to participate in ‘x' or ‘y', it can be very awkward to navigate how to respond. Do you lie? Do you tell the truth and say that you are listed on the ChildLine registry? Because children are among our most vulnerable populations, the social stigma that accompanies anyone suspected of harming them is huge.
We've already touched on some of the reasons that there can be financial implications. These are frequently tied to career and employment opportunities and the ways in which your options can be curtailed as a result of being listed on the ChildLine registry. This can snowball into having to take lower-paying jobs and subsequently needing to reduce your standard of living. A lower standard of living can also influence your social status and your social currency, leading to fewer future opportunities.
Other ways in which you might run into financial challenges include circumstances where you're not allowed to be alone with your children and need to have a third-party present. In these instances, there are people to whom you can pay a small stipend in order for them to stay with you and your children during the interaction. This can add up over time and cost more than you'd expect.
Hire an Experienced ChildLine Defense Attorney to Protect Your Future
When you or a loved one is facing a ChildLine investigation or listing, it's imperative that you seek legal assistance. You want the best possible attorney to fight beside you and help you navigate the complexities of an investigation and an administrative hearing process (if necessary). Don't wait or try to save money by attempting to handle this serious matter on your own.
With so many potential areas of impact, a ChildLine listing can affect all regions of your life. The Lento Law Firm and Joseph D. Lento have helped numerous individuals and their families across the state as they sought removal or clearance from the Pennsylvania ChildLine registry. When you have an attorney to advise you about which steps are best, you can ensure that your rights are protected, even though a ChildLine investigation does not have any due process. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888.535.3686 or reach out online to see how they can help.