It's one of those nightmare scenarios: you answer your door or pick up your phone and learn that someone has reported you to Pennsylvania's ChildLine hotline and that; as a result, you're being investigated for suspected child abuse by Fulton County Services for Children. A ChildLine investigation is an intrusive, tense, uncertain experience that, in a worst-case scenario, can result in you losing custody of your own child or children. That's why it's important to have an experienced criminal defense attorney by your side as soon as possible. The LLF Law Firm Criminal Defense Team understands how ChildLine investigations work, and our attorneys know how to help you understand what's happening and protect your rights throughout the entire process. Call us today at 888.535.3686, or use our confidential contact form to set up a consultation.
Few Reports of Suspected Child Abuse Are Confirmed
While it may not provide a lot of comfort while you're in the middle of being investigated, of the thousands of reports of suspected child abuse that are received by Pennsylvania's ChildLine hotline, only a small number – less than 8% in 2021 – are confirmed (or “substantiated”) once the report is fully investigated. In Fulton County, that percentage was a bit higher; of the 55 ChildLine reports received in Fulton County in 2021, 12 were deemed substantiated, just under 22%.
But statistics are meaningless when you're the one being investigated for suspected child abuse. It can help to understand that some people are required by law to make a ChildLine report if they have “reasonable cause to believe” that a child may have been abused. Professionals such as teachers, doctors, law enforcement, and clergy who fail to make a ChildLine report when they have that “reasonable cause” risk criminal charges and a loss of their credentials. As a result, there is an incentive built into the ChildLine system for these legally “mandated reporters” to make ChildLine reports – even where no actual child abuse has happened.
The other thing to understand is that anybody can file a ChildLine report – and can do so anonymously. In our experience, it's not unusual for an ex-spouse (or soon-to-be ex) to file a false or misleading ChildLine report simply to gain an advantage over the other spouse or to make them go through the mental anguish that comes with a ChildLine investigation. Even when you know you haven't done anything wrong, the stress of being investigated can turn your life upside down for weeks or months and can leave lingering feelings of constantly being under suspicion.
That's why it helps to have experienced attorneys on your side, someone who understands the ChildLine process, who knows how Pennsylvania's child abuse laws and child welfare system work, and who can help you protect your rights through what is undeniably a very difficult time. The LLF Law Firm has helped parents all across Pennsylvania who have been accused of child abuse. Give us a call to find out how we can help you.
Accused of Suspected Child Abuse in Fulton County
When a ChildLine report is filed about suspected child abuse in Fulton County, the state forwards it to Fulton County Services for Children (FCSC), which is the agency in Fulton County that investigates child abuse reports and also provides a range of services designed to help parents, families, and guardians care for children. FCSC will first review the ChildLine report to see whether it meets the standards for an investigation; not every report of suspected child abuse reports alleged behavior that qualifies as child abuse under Pennsylvania law.
If FCSC initiates an investigation against you, an investigating caseworker will notify you at some point. Note that investigators may also contact your child's school as part of the investigation, and depending on the type of report, investigators may also speak with doctors, clergy, neighbors, and other members of your household – including children. At some point, your name may be placed on the ChildLine Registry as a substantiated child abuser, which can have serious and long-lasting consequences. All of this can be very difficult to deal with, which is why it can be so helpful to have the help of the experienced Criminal Defense Team from the LLF Law Firm. We'll be by your side throughout the entire ordeal, helping you understand what's going on, protecting your rights, and making sure that the investigation and any decisions made follow the law.
What is the ChildLine System?
In Pennsylvania, anyone who suspects anyone else of committing child abuse can report it using the state's ChildLine system. This is an online system that's available 24/7 for anyone to use. When ChildLine receives a report of suspected child abuse, it directs the report to the child services agency located in the county where the child who's the subject of the report lives. As noted above, ChildLine reports about children living in Fulton County are sent to Fulton County Services for Children (FCSC). FCSC will then review the report and, where it appears appropriate, will investigate it.
When FCSC “substantiates” a report of child abuse, the person who is believed to have committed the abuse is listed on Pennsylvania's ChildLine registry. This is a database that, while not public, can be accessed by employers checking on existing or potential employees. It's not unusual for someone's name to be placed on the ChildLine registry before they realize it's been done, and once it's on the registry, it can be difficult to get your name removed from it. That's where working with one of the experienced attorneys from the LLF Law Firm Criminal Defense Team can help; we'll make sure you have every chance to defend yourself against child abuse allegations and can help file appeal procedures even if we become involved after your name has been listed in the ChildLine registry.
While in some respects, having a centralized system for reporting child abuse may seem to be a good thing, a recent report issued by legal clinics affiliated with Temple and University of Pennsylvania law schools argues that the ChildLine system is unfair to many citizens and should be changed. This highlights the need to have an experienced family law attorney by your side if FCSC is investigating you for suspected child abuse.
Who Can Make a ChildLine Report
While anyone can make a ChildLine report, most are filed by so-called “mandated reporters.” These are professionals who are required by Pennsylvania law to report suspected child abuse and include school personnel, social service agency employees, doctors and other health care workers, child care providers, and others. More than 80% of all ChildLine reports made in 2021 came from mandated reporters. The rest came from people who didn't have a legal obligation to report but did so anyway – called “permissive reporters.”
A mandated reporter is protected against liability if they file a ChildLine report that later turns out to be unsubstantiated – except in cases where they maliciously filed an unsubstantiated or false report. Any ChildLine reporter, mandatory or permissive, who intentionally makes a false ChildLine report can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.
What Happens After a ChildLine Report Is Made
As noted above, the ChildLine system will direct ChildLine reports made about children living in Fulton County to FCSC, which will review the report to decide whether it describes potential abuse that needs to be investigated. In some cases, the report describes a situation that can be addressed with other social services but that doesn't rise to the level of child abuse.
When, however, FCSC determines that the report describes potential child abuse, it will open an investigation. This is where things can get very difficult for you if you're the one suspected of having committed child abuse. You'll be interviewed, of course – but so may your child or children, other people living with you, neighbors, friends, co-workers, your child's teachers or daycare workers, health care professionals, and others who come into contact with you, or your child and may have information that the FCSD investigator thinks might be helpful. This can take weeks or even months, and during all this time, you'll be left wondering what's going to happen to you and to your child.
At the close of the investigation, you may be placed on the ChildLine registry, or the FCSC may determine that the alleged abuse cannot be substantiated and may close the investigation.
What You Can Do if You Are Being Investigated by a ChildLine Investigator
It's natural to be upset and worried that FCSC is investigating you because of a ChildLine report. You may wonder whether there is anything you can or should do and how you should act when the investigator interviews you.
The important thing to remember is that you do have rights in this situation. And the best way to protect those rights is with the help of one of the experienced attorneys from the LLF Law Firm Criminal Defense Team. We can help you make sure that you only answer clear questions that you understand, and if you happen to give an answer that's not entirely clear (which is easy to do in this kind of tense and unfamiliar situation), we can help make sure you have a chance to clarify it. Nobody benefits if you give an unclear answer to an unclear question.
This is why working with a lawyer makes sense in a ChildLine investigation situation. The ChildLine investigator knows the law and has likely conducted many interviews in many investigations in the past. For you, on the other hand, this is a very unfamiliar and upsetting situation. Having an experienced family law attorney at your side helps even out the advantages that the investigator has over you.
So, while you should cooperate with the FCSC investigator, you should also be fair to yourself and your child by doing everything you can to make sure your rights are protected and that the investigation is a fair one.
What Happens if a ChildLine Investigator Decides an Abuse Report Against You is Confirmed
When an FCSC investigator decides that a ChildLine abuse report has been “substantiated,” your name will be added to Pennsylvania's ChildLine registry. While it won't be public, it will be available to employers who use the registry to check on the status of existing and potential employees. Your name can be added even before you have a chance to appeal a ChildLine registry determination, so if that happens (and in any case), if you're going to appeal a ChildLine registry listing, it makes sense to do so as quickly as possible.
How to Appeal a ChildLine Abuse Finding
You have 90 days from when you're notified that your name has been added to the ChildLine registry to appeal that decision. While you may think an appeal is probably a waste of time, in 2021, almost 40% of ChildLine registry appeals were granted, meaning the parent's name was removed from the ChildLine registry.
There are two ways to appeal a ChildLine registry listing. You can ask the Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth, and Families (OCYF) to conduct an administrative review of the ChildLine abuse determination. Or you can petition the OCYF's Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (BHA) and ask them for a hearing. Your BHA hearing will likely take place at the BHA's Central Region office in Harrisburg. If the BHA rules against you, you can appeal the decision to the Secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services.
The BHA hearing will be similar to a court hearing, with each side presenting evidence in support of their position and oral arguments made in favor of each side. The OCYF has to offer “clear and convincing evidence” that you committed the abuse that led to you being added to the ChildLine registry. If they can't do this, then the decision to list your name in the registry will be overturned, and your name will be removed from the registry.
If the BHA rules against you, you must file your request with the Secretary of the Department of Human Services within 15 days.
Appealing a ChildLine abuse finding is another area where it makes a lot of sense to be working with one of the experienced criminal defense attorneys from the LLF Law Firm. Appeals are a very technical area of the law, and we will work with you to make sure that the appeal filed on your behalf is as strong and as convincing as possible. We'll make sure your case is presented in a professional, convincing way.
Expunging Your ChildLine Registry Entry
In certain situations where your name was added to the ChildLine registry in the past, you may be able to have it removed or expunged. For example, if there was evidence in your favor that wasn't brought to the attention of the investigator or that the investigator didn't consider when your name was placed on the ChildLine registry, you may be able to get your name removed. Or, if you can show that there is no longer a risk of child abuse in your situation and that there is no public purpose served by your name continuing to appear on the ChildLine list, your name might be removed.
The LLF Law Firm Team can help you prepare and file your expungement request with the Secretary of the DHS. Contact us to learn more about expungement.
How the LLF Law Firm Can Help
The LLF Law Firm Criminal Defense Team can help you at every stage of the ChildLine process – from when you first learn that you've been reported through the investigation process to any appeals or expungement requests. No matter where you find yourself in this timeline, we can step in and give you the benefit of our criminal defense attorneys and their years of experience helping others all across Pennsylvania who found themselves being investigated as a result of a ChildLine report.
We can conduct our own investigations to see if there is supporting information or evidence that the FCSC investigator missed; we will help you make sure your rights are respected throughout the investigation process, including during interviews; and we will vigorously represent you in the event you need to appeal the investigator's determination.
To tell us more about your situation and to learn how the LLF Law Firm Team can help you, call us today at 888.535.3686 or use our contact form to set up a confidential consultation. We're here to listen and to help.