If you live in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, and received notice you are being investigated for alleged child abuse, you have every right to be concerned. Accusations of child abuse can greatly impact your life and your future, and you may feel shocked and dismayed that someone reported you for suspected child abuse in the first place.
Reports can come from just about anywhere, from the child's other parent to a concerned citizen. Some individuals, such as doctors and teachers, have a legal responsibility to report suspected child abuse, and virtually anyone can file a report anonymously.
Regardless of who reported you, the ordeal has likely caused you many sleepless nights and constant worry over the effect the accusations will have on your life and livelihood.
Although no one would argue children need protection from legitimate abusive situations, many people are falsely accused of child abuse each year. False accusations can sometimes happen in contentious child custody battles and divorce proceedings, where one spouse thinks that reporting child abuse will hurt the other parent's chances of obtaining custody. False reports can also come from spurned former romantic partners and others seeking revenge.
No matter the motive, false accusations of child abuse are a serious threat. For example, in 2021, there were 7235 reports of suspected child abuse filed in Pennsylvania, and many of these reports came from so-called “permissive reporters” – which are essentially regular people who have no state requirement to report suspected child abuse. Of those reports, however, only 7.4% were substantiated by a local child protective services agency.
Dealing with false allegations of child abuse can take a tremendous toll on your life. Even if investigators find the report has no merit, just the mere accusation can ruin your reputation and standing in the community. Although you may be cleared of any wrongdoing, you will have a long, tough road to repair your good name and fix the fallout that occurred. The whole ordeal can adversely affect your mental state, and you may suffer from paranoia, anxiety, or depression as a result.
Accused of Suspected Child Abuse in Lehigh County
The Lehigh County Office of Children and Youth Services (OCYS), which falls under the county's Department of Human Services, is concerned with maintaining child welfare throughout the county. The OCYS investigates allegations of child abuse reported through the Pennsylvania ChildLine reporting system, and it also relies on an Advisory Board for recommendations on how to best keep children safe.
Each year, Lehigh County's OCYS receives hundreds of reports of child abuse. In 2020, the agency received 1,122 total reports, 143 of which were substantiated.
Whether you have received notice you are under investigation by the OCYS for alleged child abuse or you have already been placed on the ChildLine registry, you should contact an experienced attorney right away. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team have helped many clients in Lehigh County and throughout Pennsylvania with dealing with their issues involving accusations of child abuse and Childline registries.
What Is Pennsylvania's ChildLine System?
The Pennsylvania ChildLine system is a statewide child abuse reporting system. ChildLine is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and anyone who feels they need to report suspected child abuse can report the matter by phone or online. Any report filed through ChildLine will be forwarded to the appropriate agency that's responsible for investigating child abuse allegations. In Lehigh County, that agency is the Office of Child and Youth Services.
In addition to reports of suspected child abuse, ChildLine also maintains lists of people who received substantiated reports of child abuse, which is known as the ChildLine registry. The information is publicly accessible, and anyone can search to see if your name is on the list. This includes prospective employers you may apply to as well as your current employer if they run a background check on you.
Sometimes, people can have their names added to the ChildLine registry without having first received notice they are under investigation, and many are not given a chance to present their side of the story or defend themselves in any way.
Therefore, it's vitally important you contact an attorney immediately once you learn you are under investigation for alleged child abuse or discover your name is on the registry.
Who Can Make a ChildLine Report?
The ChildLine reporting system is open to anyone, but Pennsylvania recognizes two types of reporters: mandated and permissive reporters.
Mandated reporters are those who work in certain professions, such as healthcare, childcare, education, or social work, who are required by law to report suspected child abuse. Any mandated reporter who does not report alleged abuse may face criminal consequences. For this reason, child service officials typically place more weight on mandated reports as they feel the reporter is likely acting in good faith and not out of spite or anger. Nevertheless, false accusations of child abuse can still come from mandated reporters.
Permissive reporters are people who have no legal obligation to report child abuse, and these types of reports can come from just about anyone. A person needs only reasonable cause to suspect child abuse, and reporters can make their reports anonymously by phone or online.
What Happens After Someone Reports Suspected Child Abuse to ChildLine?
When someone in Lehigh County submits a report of suspected child abuse to ChildLine, the matter will be forwarded to the OCYS for review. The investigator assigned to the case will determine whether the report has merit, and if so, they will investigate further. During this time, things can become quite stressful and challenging for the accused individual.
The investigation can feel invasive and embarrassing, which is particularly true if the report was filed with malicious intent. The accused person may be blindsided by the accusation and appalled someone would report them for suspected child abuse.
If someone reports you through ChildLine, you can expect a visit from investigators. They will thoroughly review your case and conduct an extensive interview with you, probably at your home. They may also speak with others in the home to corroborate or refute any information in the report, and they may speak with your friends, co-workers, and even your employer. The investigation and any necessary follow-ups can take time, and the whole process can greatly impact your life.
What You Can Do If a ChildLine Investigator Is Investigating You
Regardless of who submitted the report or the accusations involved, you have the right to have an attorney represent you during all stages of the process. Investigators may ask you misleading questions or misinterpret what you say and use that information against you. They may also act friendly and accommodating to catch you off guard.
This is why it is so important you have an attorney with you during the interview. A lawyer can ensure the investigator asks clear questions that are easy to understand, and they can advise you on how best to respond.
Although the investigator may try to make you feel as though they are on your side, they're not. Therefore, you need a legal advocate to stand by you and help you get the most favorable outcome possible.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has many years of experience assisting those under investigation by Lehigh County's OCYS or any other similar agency in Pennsylvania. He and the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team have helped many people in Lehigh County get through the interview process and obtain positive results. Attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team can remain in contact with the investigator and offer any evidence that could prove your innocence or dispute the allegations.
Although you want to be cooperative with the investigation and answer any questions honestly, you also don't want to further implicate yourself or say something the investigator can use against you. An experienced attorney can help balance the line between your cooperating with the investigator and protecting your rights.
What Happens if a ChildLine Investigator Confirms the Abuse Report Against You
If a Lehigh County OCYS investigator finds you committed child abuse, they can add your name to Pennsylvania's ChildLine registry almost immediately. You may have no idea your name is on the list, and it puts you at a considerable disadvantage because now there is a substantiated record of the alleged abuse that marks you as the offender.
Your best option after learning your name is on the ChildLine registry is to contact an attorney and have them help you appeal the decision.
Appealing a ChildLine Abuse Decision
If officials place your name on the ChildLine registry, you have 90 days to appeal the decision. This is an urgent matter, and you must take action immediately upon learning you were placed on the registry.
To appeal the decision, you have two options:
- You can have your attorney petition the OCYS to conduct an administrative review of the decision and the findings of the investigation.
- You can have your lawyer ask for a hearing from the Bureau of Hearings and Appeal (BHA).
For Lehigh County, your BHA appeal will most likely be heard in the Philadelphia State Office Building or perhaps the Reading State Office Building. Keep in mind the administrative hearing is similar to a court proceeding, but it's not the same thing. There are substantial differences between the two, particularly when it comes to the rule of evidence and evidentiary procedure.
Unlike a criminal trial, OCYS officials need not prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They must only present “clear and convincing” evidence that you most likely committed the abuse. However, if officials cannot produce evidence to support the allegations, the decision to have your name added to the registry should be reversed, and your name should be expunged.
If the BHA supports the initial decision and you want to appeal to a higher authority, you can have your attorney file an appeals request with the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS). This is your final option for reversing the decision to add your name to the registry, and your lawyer has 15 days to request an appeal from the Secretary of the DHS.
Just as with the investigation and other aspects of the process, trying to have the decision appealed is not something you want to tackle on your own. You need an experienced attorney by your side who has in-depth knowledge of Pennsylvania's child abuse laws and understands how officers and investigators determine guilt or consider appeals. A knowledgeable attorney can be an invaluable asset to help you get the favorable outcomes you expect and deserve.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team have extensive knowledge of Pennsylvania's child abuse and protection laws, and they have considerable experience dealing with investigators and child protective services officers. They can help you develop a strong and compelling appeal to improve your odds of success.
Expunging Your Name From the ChildLine Registry
As mentioned, if Lehigh County's OCYS or the BHA appeal decides in your favor that you did not commit child abuse, they should remove your name from the registry and expunge your record. If your name has been on the registry for some period of time, you may have options for relief. The Secretary of the DHS may expunge your entry in the following situations:
- Newly discovered evidence emerges that shows the initial report of abuse was inaccurate
- Authorities determine you do not pose a threat of child abuse, and there is no public purpose for keeping your name on the ChildLine registry
How The Lento Law Firm Can Help
If you are under investigation by Lehigh County OYCS or discover your name is on the ChildLine registry, you must contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team right away.
They have many years of experience dealing with child protection officers in Lehigh County and across the state, as well as with Pennsylvania's ChildLine reporting system. They can help you protect your rights and offer support and guidance during this difficult, uncertain, and stressful time in your life.
The Lento Law Firm Team understands how Pennsylvania's child protection system works, and they have seen how some people have abused and misused the system to the detriment of others. Attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team have helped many falsely accused individuals clear their names and expunge themselves from the ChildLine registry.
Don't let false allegations of child abuse jeopardize your chances of maintaining custody of your children or ruining your chances at a good and fruitful life. Retain an experienced attorney immediately who can assert and protect your rights and help you get the best outcome.