There is arguably no crime more serious to be accused of than child abuse. Facing accusations of child abuse is a situation no one wants to find themselves in. If you are facing these allegations, you are likely scared about the investigation, potential findings and charges, and life-long consequences that lay ahead of you. Whether or not you have committed child abuse, the fear and surprise around these allegations are warranted. It is, of course, even more shocking to hear about these allegations if you have not committed child abuse. Unfounded reports of child abuse can cause incredible amounts of pain and suffering and could isolate you from your friends and family, who might not know what to think.
Whether allegations are true or unfounded, Montgomery County must take all reports of child abuse equally seriously until they can determine the truth of the matter. Everyone wants Montgomery County children to be protected from harm, and Montgomery County has the legal and moral obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of all its children.
While, of course, every allegation of child abuse should be looked into, there are often unfounded cases of abuse. These unfounded cases frequently come up as the result of family disputes and are used as leverage in court proceedings related to child support and custody. For example, if you are going through a divorce, your partner or someone close to them may falsely claim you have committed child abuse to make the court believe you are an unfit parent and will not be awarded custody.
Making false claims is disgusting and almost always damaging for the person who is falsely accused and, even worse, the child who is inappropriately put in the middle of the conflict. LLF Law Firm knows how challenging these allegations can be, and we have helped countless Pennsylvanians facing child abuse allegations, both true and unfounded. If you have a child abuse allegation battle in front of you, our Family Law Team can help.
What Is the ChildLine System?
The ChildLine system is the system in place in Pennsylvania for child abuse reporting; it is a statewide centralized database. ChildLine is a hotline that must "accept child abuse referrals and general child well-being concerns and transmit the information quickly to the appropriate investigating agency." While the term hotline traditionally applied to a phone line, ChildLine accepts suspected child abuse claims in a few ways, including over the phone on its 24/7 line and electronically on the ChildLine webpage. ChildLine reports can be made anonymously. This is particularly concerning because a child abuse allegation can be made against you, and you won't even know who has made this potentially false claim against you or how credible the evidence against you is.
Suppose you are a Montgomery County resident or have been reported for child abuse relating to a child residing in Montgomery County. In that case, you are now under investigation and are on the ChildLine registry. This is a serious and delicate situation; being on the ChildLine registry has very real and severe consequences. Even at this early stage, you should be immediately retaining legal counsel. LLF Law Firm has worked many of these cases from start to finish and will fight for the child abuse claims against you to be dropped.
Being Accused of Child Abuse in Montgomery County
If you are accused of child abuse, the Montgomery County Office of Children and Youth is the authority that accepts and investigates these reports. The Office and Children and Youth is obligated by law to investigate any child abuse claims that are reported, whether it be to its office directly, through the ChildLine system, or any other reporting method.
In 2022, the Office of Children and Youth received and subsequently investigated 1,416 cases of child abuse throughout Montgomery County. These investigations cost the county $4.52 million. Ultimately, only 144 reported cases were substantiated.
Who Can Make a ChildLine Report?
Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, anyone can make a report of suspected child abuse, regardless of their actual knowledge of the situation. Reports to the ChildLine are called referrals. Child abuse referrals will either be made by permissive or mandatory reporters. Permissive reporters are particularly concerning because quite literally anyone can make them. This could be a friend, neighbor, or family member, regardless of whether they have any reason or proof to report you to ChildLine. The other type of reporter is a mandatory reporter; this is a person who is legally required under Pennsylvania law to report suspected child abuse. You might have heard of mandatory reporting and assumed that this would be limited to a few categories of people, such as teachers and school nurses, but there are actually many people who fall into the mandatory reporter category. Some of these people include:
- Doctors and other medical professionals
- Law enforcement officers or agencies
- Foster parents
- Clergymen such as priests, rabbis, ministers, etc.
- Public library staff
Almost anyone who has interacted with the child involved in the alleged incident or has authority over someone who interacts with the child is likely a mandatory reporter.
What Happens After a ChildLine Referral is Made?
After a referral has been made to ChildLine, it will be sent to the Office of Children and Youth, which will immediately begin an initial screening within 24 hours of the referral. Action may be taken even faster if a referral states that a child is in immediate danger or a social worker or law enforcement is concerned about the immediate safety of the child. In this instance, the child may be taken out of the home or threatening situation immediately and not returned until the issue has been resolved.
The Office of Children and Youth's initial screening will be a review of the referral and determination as to whether the referral has merit and warrants further investigation. In making this determination, the Office of Children and Youth will assess whether the facts of the case constitute a child case as defined under Pennsylvania law. The law defines child abuse as "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly" committing one or more of numerous acts detailed in the statute. The acts detailed in the law include, but are not limited to:
- Causing serious physical neglect of a child
- Kicking, biting, throwing, burning, stabbing, or cutting a child
- Leaving a child unsupervised with an individual who is a registered sexual offender
- Causing or substantially contributing to serious mental injury of a child through any act or failure to act
- Interfering with the breathing of a child
If the Office of Children and Youth decides an additional investigation is required, the case will be sent to Child Protective Services, and the worker assigned to the case will contact the child's family and begin its formal investigation. You will receive a letter that you are being investigated. Formal investigations generally take around 30 days, but if the caseworker is unable to finish their investigation in the designated timeframe, they must document the reasoning for the delay. The caseworker will then have an additional 30 days to complete the investigation.
After the investigation, the caseworker will determine that the case is either unfounded/unsubstantiated/dismissed, indicated, or founded/substantiated. Under Pennsylvania law, a founded report is one in which any of the following applies:
- There has been a judicial adjudication (e.g., a guilty plea, finding of guilt, nolo contendere)
- There has been an acceptance into a rehabilitation program
- There has been a consent decree entered (relevant only for juvenile proceedings)
- A final protection from abuse order has been granted
An indicated report means that Child Protective Services found substantial evidence of child abuse; evidence in support of the abuse allegation would include medical evidence, the investigation, and any acts you may have admitted to. A report will be deemed unfounded if the investigation does not support an indicated or founded report.
You will receive a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services with the findings.
What You Can Do if You Are Being Investigated by a ChildLine Investigator
Reaching out to an attorney should be your first step when you receive notification that you are under a ChildLine investigation. LLF Law Firm has years of experience representing clients who have been the subject of ChildLine referrals and investigations. Our Family Law Team can support you in numerous ways. We learn the ins and outs of your case and investigate all the details. Caseworkers are often overworked and burned out; this means they can't always keep the facts of their many cases straight and may make mistakes in their determinations. LLF Law Firm will make sure the caseworker is on track and ensure they don't miss details and evidence that are crucial to your defense. Even the smallest mistake can lead to the wrong determination and have devastating impacts on your whole life.
What Happens if a ChildLine Investigator Finds You May Have Abused a Child?
If the investigation report against you comes back as founded or indicated, you will be placed on the ChildLine Registry (also called the Pennsylvania Child Abuse Registry). Unfortunately, your name can be put on the ChildLine Registry without you ever going before a judge or having a real chance to defend yourself before the court. You must take immediate action if you receive a founded or indicated report.
It is important to keep in mind that ChildLine investigations are not criminal investigations that would be under the jurisdiction of law enforcement. ChildLine and criminal investigations can run concurrently, but their findings are separate. For example, the ChildLine investigation against you may not be determined founded, but you could still be facing criminal charges.
Expunging Your ChildLine Registry Entry
You have the right to appeal your ChildLine finding within 90 days of receiving notice of the determination. If your appeal is filed in the appropriate amount of time and has merit, you will be allowed to request a hearing.
The hearing, which will be in front of the Department of Health's Bureau of Hearings and Appeals, works similarly to a court case in that you can present testimony, evidence, and witnesses on your behalf. Unlike a traditional court case, administrative hearings have their own sets of rules, standards, and procedures. It is important you invoke your right to be represented by an attorney. You do not want to lose your appeal on a technicality.
How LLF Law Firm Can Help if You've Been Referred to ChildLine in Montgomery County
Having an experienced legal team on your side when you are facing child abuse claims is crucial. A child abuse finding against you can destroy your reputation, your personal family life, and any career prospects. It can be nearly impossible to restore your good name once you are listed on the ChildLine registry. Being on the ChildLine registry prevents you from attending nearly any function where children are present. This means you may miss out on important life events for those you love, from mundane soccer practices to school graduations. You can also face lifelong career obstacles; even if the job you are applying for doesn't require working with children, many employers are hesitant even to interview a candidate with child abuse records.
The experienced attorneys at the LLF Law Firm are there to ensure you know your rights, and they are exercised to protect you throughout the ChildLine referral process. We fight tooth and nail to restore your reputation and achieve the best possible outcome. You cannot gamble on your future, and reversing the consequences of a permanent ChildLine child abuse finding is impossible. The LLF Law Firm has represented numerous Montgomery County residents facing ChildLine referrals. Our knowledgeable team will be there for you every step of the way. Contact the LLF Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or submit a confidential online consultation form to get the best legal representation possible to defend yourself against a ChildLine referral.