As a foster parent residing in Pennsylvania, you perform a much-needed service in caring for at-risk children in care of the state. It's a position of great trust because you're literally being entrusted with the lives and welfare of children, many of whom have already experienced some form of trauma in life and need a place to feel safe and nurtured.
Taking this into account, finding out that someone has reported you to ChildLine can be incredibly traumatizing and demoralizing. The very idea of a foster parent abusing a child who was placed in their care for the purpose of protecting them from such abuse—the social stigma alone could put a lifelong blemish on your reputation. Not to mention such an allegation could permanently disqualify you from further foster parenting and possibly result in criminal charges against you.
What is most challenging about this situation is that your life could be completely disrupted without the allegations even being proven. Just the accusation of abusing a child can cost you your role as a foster parent (and possibly result in having your own children taken from you), put you under intense scrutiny by Child, Youth, and Family Services (CYF), and get your name placed permanently on the ChildLine registry labeling you as a suspected abuser, which in turn could severely limit your employment options. The fact is, you're placed at a huge disadvantage from the moment someone reports you to ChildLine.
Your Legal Defense Against Child Abuse Accusations: The Lento Law Firm
Despite the unfairness and the peril of the situation in which you find yourself, engaging an experienced attorney early in the process can greatly minimize the damage to your personal and professional life. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Criminal Defense Team have many years of experience defending people like you who have been reported to ChildLine and are facing possible child abuse charges. We will work tirelessly to guard your rights, develop a strong defense, work strategically to minimize the fallout from being reported to ChildLine, and vigorously defend you against any criminal charges that may arise. Reach out to the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 to arrange a consultation.
How ChildLine Works in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services instituted ChildLine as a 24/7 hotline dedicated to providing a quick response to protect children facing possible child abuse. This platform allows any member of the public to report suspicious incidents or recurrent patterns that suggest child abuse or neglect. Additionally, certain professionals such as healthcare providers, members of the clergy, law enforcement officers, and school employees are legally mandated to report to ChildLine if they see or hear of any evidence of child abuse happening.
Within 24 hours of receiving a child abuse report against you, ChildLine transfers the matter to the local Child, Youth, and Family (CYF) Services for a comprehensive investigation of the allegations. This investigation will likely include visits to your home, interviews with the child and with you as the foster parent, document review, and other fact-finding endeavors. If the CYF caseworker feels the child is in imminent danger, they will remove the child from your custody for their safety. If the evaluation uncovers substantial evidence of abuse or neglect, CYF will then pass the case to local prosecutors for the consideration of criminal charges against you.
What Constitutes Child Abuse in Pennsylvania?
Under Pennsylvania's Child Protective Services Law, the term "child abuse" is broadly defined as any deliberate act or failure to act that results in harm to a child or subjects the child to a preventable risk of harm. Such damage could take the form of physical injuries or psychological trauma. The scope of actions classified as child abuse is wide-ranging, encapsulating, but not limited to, the following:
- Physical injury inflicted on a child.
- Causing psychological turmoil to a child.
- Restricting a child's breathing.
- Unwarranted restraining of a child.
- Neglecting the critical medical needs of a child.
- Assaulting a child below one year of age.
- Sexual assault, or aiding and abetting such assault of a child.
- Leaving a child unattended with a registered sex offender.
- Failing to cater to a child's physical needs, especially in terms of adequate supervision.
How a Foster Parent Might Get Reported to ChildLine
Essentially, anyone who knows you are a foster parent and observes behavior they believe to be questionable may report you to ChildLine--including, but not limited to:
- Family members
- School officials
- Other foster parents
In addition, numerous other individuals who may interact with you and your foster child(ren) are required by law to report to ChildLine if they notice possible signs of child abuse. This list includes:
- Social workers
- Medical professionals who treat the children
- School employees
- Members of the clergy or religious practitioners
- Employees or volunteers of community programs for children (e.g., Little League, city recreation programs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, etc.)
What Happens If Your Name Is Reported to ChildLine
ChildLine takes every report of alleged child abuse very seriously, and they respond to each complaint quickly to ensure children are protected from potential or further harm. A foster parent who is reported to ChildLine should be prepared for a huge amount of disruption in a short span of time. Here's an outline of what to anticipate.
Your name will be automatically added to the ChildLine registry as an alleged child abuser.
According to current Pennsylvania legislation, irrespective of the credibility of the allegations, your name goes into the state database as a potential child abuser. This list is not available to the public, but it is accessible by many agencies with whom you may work. Furthermore, your name stays on the list permanently unless you can successfully get it expunged--even if you're never accused of such a misdeed again.
The CYF commences a comprehensive investigation.
This investigative process can span up to 30 days or more. The CYF caseworker will interview you, the child, and any potential material witnesses, as well as reviewing school records, police records, medical records, and any other relevant documentation. You can expect one or more home visits during the investigation, and since anyone registered with ChildLine cannot function as a foster parent, there's a high likelihood that all your foster children will be removed from your care at least until the examination is concluded and/or your name is cleared.
The CYF reaches a conclusion based on the evaluated evidence.
The Department of Human Services will issue an official statement specifying the findings of the CYF investigation, which includes one of the following three determinations regarding your case:
- Unfounded: Lack of evidence to validate the child abuse allegation.
- Indicated: Some evidence discovered but lacking conclusive proof.
- Founded: Unambiguous evidence to corroborate the child abuse allegations.
Possible legal ramifications.
Should the child abuse claims be substantiated (i.e., termed as "indicated" or "founded"), the case will be referred to local prosecutors for further review. You need to be prepared to face either civil or criminal charges--or both. Conviction could result in penalties including fines, incarceration, and a criminal record.
Long-Term Repercussions of a ChildLine Notification in Pennsylvania
As a foster parent accused of child abuse, the most significant consequence of being listed in ChildLine is that you will be disqualified from serving as a foster parent for the foreseeable future--nor will you be able to adopt. Beyond that, even if the accusations leveled against you have no basis in fact, being reported to ChildLine can cast a lasting, burdensome pall over your personal and professional existence. Besides the widespread social stigma of being labeled an abuser, you will have to deal with the psychological stress both of being accused and of the possibility of criminal charges. The ChildLine registry, although not publicly accessible, can be viewed by designated government agencies, employers, educational institutions, and organizations focused on child welfare. Should your name appear in this registry, here are the possible implications.
You'll be disqualified from any employment that involves contact with children. This includes teaching positions, daycare centers, child-oriented charities, and many positions in healthcare. Employers engaging with minors will conduct a check on your record, and your prospective employment will be denied if your name shows up in ChildLine.
Participation in child-centered community endeavors will be prohibited. Your ability to volunteer in any role involving child interaction within community activities--including positions like Little League coach, scout leader, or Big Brother/Big Sister--will be revoked.
You could lose custody of your own children. If you have children of your own, an allegation of child abuse could result in having your own children removed from your home along with any foster children you care for--even if the allegation of abuse did not implicate abuse toward your own child. In addition, if an ex-spouse or other parent files a custody dispute against you, your inclusion in the ChildLine registry can adversely affect the judge's determination as to your fitness as a parent, possibly resulting the loss of custody and even loss of visitation rights.
Will My Name be Registered Indefinitely on the ChildLine Registry?
By default, all names included in ChildLine are considered permanent and for life unless the name is successfully expunged. There are basically only two ways in which expunction can happen:
- If CYF determines the complaint is "unfounded." In cases of unsubstantiated accusations, your name should automatically be expunged from ChildLine after 120 days UNLESS you receive social services during the investigation. In such cases, your name remains permanently on the registry, albeit with a notation of "UNFOUNDED."
- If you file a successful appeal to have your name expunged. If the CYF determination is "indicated" or "founded," the report of abuse stays on ChildLine until the purported victim reaches 23 years of age, but your name stays on the list for life. But if you file an appeal within 90 days and your appeal is successful, the abuse report and your name may both 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 happens in two stages:
- Filing a hearing request: The initial action requires formally submitting a request for an administrative hearing to review your case. This includes detailing the reasons behind your appeal for removal 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: This hearing is presided over by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Your attorney will champion your case, presenting arguments and evidential support for why the charges against you were unfair and your name should be expunged. The hearing concludes with the ALJ's final ruling. If the judgment is in your favor, your name will be expunged from ChildLine.
If you plan to appeal, it's critical that you do so within 90 days of the date of your notification from DHS. If you fail to meet this window, you'll forfeit the opportunity and your name will stay on ChildLine for life. Because this window is so short, and because you only basically have one opportunity to file a successful appeal, it's best to hire an experienced attorney to help you.
How Lento Law Firm Can Assist
For foster parents in particular, addressing child abuse allegations can be complex and arduous—not to mention that your future as a foster parent depends on the outcome. Your best hope of minimizing the damage to your life and avoiding criminal charges is with the help of an experienced child abuse defense attorney. Joseph D. Lento and his Criminal Defense Team have been providing legal assistance to people accused of child abuse in Pennsylvania for many years. We understand the sensitivity and complexity of these cases, and we will take every appropriate step to minimize the damage to your life, your family, and your future--from offering guidance through the CYF investigation to helping you avoid criminal prosecution and/or conviction, to coordinating appeals for ChildLine expungement.
A report to ChildLine signifies an impending crisis, but you're not alone and there's no need to accept the accusations without a fight. Let us help you navigate this difficult time so you can move forward with your life. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or reach out to us via our online form.