If you or a loved one has received a letter in the mail giving notice that you are to be listed on the ChildLine Registry, it's imperative that you take immediate action. Listing on the registry can negatively affect your future employment, volunteer opportunities, and more. You may have never heard of ChildLine and feel completely blindsided. To help you navigate this situation, we've created a brief overview that examines some of the basic facts as well as the appeals process.
Why Did Children and Youth Send a Letter to Me?
Pennsylvania law requires that the local county agency investigating the child abuse or neglect report notify the person who is allegedly responsible for the suspected abuse.
Once the investigation concludes, Pennsylvania DHS legally must notify individuals in writing if a report is indicated or founded. This written notice serves to inform the individual that they will be listed in the ChildLine Abuse Registry and of their right to appeal the determination.
When Do I Need to Take an Appeal?
If you receive a notice letter from DHS, then promptly retain an experienced Pennsylvania attorney who knows how to pursue Childline appeals. The code sections and administrative procedures grant you important rights. But they may also be confusing to a layperson. And they require you to take timely action responding to the Department's letter. 55 Pa. Code Section 3490.106a grants an alleged perpetrator an appeal from the Department's decision to list the person in the abuse registry. A second statute, 23 Pa. Code Section 6341, also grants individuals the right to request an administrative review or appeal of a finding of child abuse. The former statute gives individuals 45 days from the notice letter's date to appeal, but the latter statute gives individuals 90 days from the notice to appeal. A Pennsylvania university child welfare center's appeals flowchart diagrams how the Department's Bureau of Hearings and Appeals handles appeals. It also confirms the 90-day appeal period. If initial review indicates that the appeal is timely and that the appeal may have merit, then the Department notifies the individual of their right to request a hearing within 90 days. If the individual requests a hearing, then the hearing gives the individual claiming the appeal a full and fair opportunity to present testimony, exhibits, and witnesses disputing and disproving the abuse or neglect claim.
What is the ChildLine Abuse Registry in Pennsylvania?
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Service (DHS) website, Childline is “part of a mandated statewide child protective services program designed to accept child abuse referrals and general child well-being concerns and transmit the information quickly to the appropriate investigating agency. ChildLine is responsible for receiving verbal and electronic referrals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The state maintains a statewide database called the ChildLine and Abuse Registry. This database contains the names of individuals who have been accused of child abuse. This is not the same database as the one that the Pennsylvania State Police maintain for sexual offenders (associated with SORNA/Megan's Law) and is accessible to the general public. Names are placed on this registry when there is an indicated or founded report of child abuse. Here are some examples of what some of those reports might include:
- Indicated and founded (i.e., established as a legitimate concern and investigated and determined) reports of child abuse
- Reports of suspected child abuse that are still pending investigations
- Reports of child abuse that are unfounded and waiting for expunction
- False reports of child abuse
- Reports that have a status of pending criminal court or juvenile court action
As you can see, individuals named on the list do not have to be convicted of any charge. That means all you have to do is be accused by someone else, and your name goes on the list prior to any sort of investigation or determination. There's no due process. Additionally, an individual who's been accused and the accusation is determined to be unfounded (i.e., not based on the evidence found by the investigation) still has their name on the list by default.
Behaviors that could land someone on the list vary wildly! For example, if a parent spanks their child and someone reports them, they could be placed on the list. And someone who sexually assaults a child could also have their name added to the list. There's no nuance, and it's seen as highly negative if your name is on the list, regardless of the extremity of the circumstances.
Because the ChildLine Abuse registry is designed to protect children (and thus the swiftness with which names are added), it has a strong propensity to skip over a due process for those who are named. Subsequently, you'll want to have your name removed as quickly as possible. There is a short window within which you can appeal the decision, so you need to act quickly. We'll cover the appeal process below.
As you can see from the image below (taken from the 2020 Child Protective Services Report), there is a significant difference between suspected reports and substantiated reports. According to the report, “The overall OCYF (Office of Children, Youth, and Families) Regional Office substantiation rate was 7.2 percent.” That means that potentially up to ~93% of the reports that OCYF investigated in 2020 were unsubstantiated, including a percentage of the ChildLine reports.
How Was I Reported to ChildLine?
Anyone is able to call the ChildLine Abuse Registry phone number and report their concerns. In practice, however, most reports come from mandated reporters, not the average person. A mandated reporter is an individual who is legally required to notify authorities of their concerns and include roles such as teachers, social workers, physicians, police officers, and more. According to the latest report, roughly 80% of the reports were made by mandated reporters for 2020. In essence, most individuals who come into contact with children and are linked to state licensure in some way fall under the mandated reporter qualification.
In addition to being mandated reporters, these individuals also receive regular training on signs and indicators of child abuse and neglect.
Who are some common mandatory reporters?
- School employees
- Childcare employees
- Medical examiners, coroners, funeral directors
- Foster parents
- Licensed or certified health practitioners
- Law enforcement agencies or peace officers
- Religious or congregational leaders
- Public library employees
- Any volunteers or employees who work with children
If a mandated reporter fails to report a concern, they could potentially lose their license or their job.
Who Decides the Status of the Report?
Once a report is filed, the local Child, Youth, and Family services agency will begin its investigation into the allegations of child abuse or neglect. Under state law, all reports must be looked into within 24 hours of the report being filed. If the social worker or police officer is concerned for the child's safety (i.e., the child may have contact with the alleged perpetrator), then they must see the child immediately. The office will determine their decision within 30 calendar days. The allegation will receive one of several statuses.
- Founded: a founded report is one that arises from a hearing and is more like a criminal conviction than some of the below statuses. This type of report is the result of a judicial decision that the child was abused, and the allegations are true.
- Indicated: an indicated report occurs when a county agency, such as CPS or Children and Youth Services, determines that child abuse or neglect has occurred. In many ways, it is more similar to an arrest, where there is “sufficient evidence” that something—in this instance, child abuse or neglect—took place. Unlike founded reports, however, there is no due process for the alleged perpetrator, as the investigation does not go to any sort of hearing. The severity and potential impact, however, is comparable to that of a founded report.
- Unfounded: an unfounded report happens when an agency investigates an allegation and does not find sufficient evidence of abuse or neglect.
- Pending: a status of pending is exactly what it sounds like. This indicates that an investigation is ongoing or that DHS is waiting on an update with the outcome of a current criminal case.
If a caseworker is unable to complete their investigation and submit the findings to ChildLine within 30 days, then they must document the reasons for failing to complete it. Caseworkers then have 60 calendar days to finish the investigation and send information along to ChildLine.
At the conclusion of the investigation, caseworkers complete an in-home safety assessment in order to identify protective measures, present or pending safety concerns, and similar things.
What is an Expunction?
When an individual wishes to remove a founded or indicated report the process is called an expunction. Without an expunction, a substantiated report stays on the ChildLine registry until the child turns 23. The adult's information stays on file indefinitely if the registry has the perpetrator's name and social security number or date of birth.
In the past (and still in some other states), unfounded reports stayed on file indefinitely. However, now they are kept on file for one year from the date of the report, and after that one-year period, they are eligible to be expunged. The expungement must be completed within 120 days, roughly four months.
Even if a name has been removed from the statewide database, County Children and Youth Agencies (CCYAs) may keep and maintain any information connected to unfounded and substantiated reports.
Can I Appeal the Finding?
It is possible to appeal a finding from a ChildLine report. However, it's critical that you begin the process promptly. Under 55 Pa. Code Section 3490.106a or 23 Pa. Code Section 6341, you must file an appeal request with the Department, or your name will be on the abuse registry. The latter statute, confirmed by a Pennsylvania university child welfare center's appeals flowchart, shows that you must first request an appeal within 90 days. That appeal request triggers the Department's administrative process to ensure that the appeal is timely and meritorious. If so, the Department will send you a second notice that you may request an appeal hearing within a second 90-day period. If you miss these windows, then regardless of whether or not the allegations are true, your name will go onto the registry. This is why you must take action and work toward an appeal as soon as you receive the letter of notice from the Department of Human Services.
What is the Hearing and Appeal Process?
The hearing and appeal process begins with a written request for an appeal. 55 Pa. Code Section 3490.105a. states the following about hearings and appeals for the ChildLine Registry:
“A perpetrator of an indicated report of child abuse may request the Secretary to amend or expunge the report on the grounds that it is inaccurate or is being maintained in a manner inconsistent with the CPSL and this chapter. The request shall be in writing and postmarked within 45-calendar days of the mailing date of the letter from ChildLine under § § 3490.40 and 3490.40a (relating to notifications regarding indicated reports; and notifications regarding founded reports).”
A second statute, 23 Pa. Code Section 6341, grants a similar right to request an appeal, although this second statute grants a longer 90-day period within which to make that request. This second statute also permits an expungement of a record from the registry. Section 6341 states as follows:
"Any person named as a perpetrator, and any school employee named, in an indicated report of child abuse may, within 90 days of being notified of the status of the report, request an administrative review by, or appeal and request a hearing before, the secretary to amend or expunge an indicated report on the grounds that it is inaccurate or it is being maintained in a manner inconsistent with this chapter. The request shall be in writing in a manner prescribed by the department."
What Is the Standard of Proof for ChildLine Cases?
First things first, you may have heard the phrase “burden of proof” used interchangeably with “standard of proof”; however, they do not refer to the same thing. The burden of proof describes the person in a case (often the prosecutor) who is responsible for proving the standard of proof. In most ChildLine cases and appeals, the burden of proof falls, at least initially, with the Children and Youth Services or Child Protective Services agency, for example, the social worker or the individual who completed the investigation into the allegations. At the time of a potential hearing to challenge an indicated report or finding, the burden of proof would fall on the attorney prosecuting the case on behalf of the applicable Children and Youth Services agency.
The standard of proof for ChildLine cases and ChildLine appeals used to be “substantial evidence.” Although substantial evidence may sound as if a large amount of evidence demonstrates that the perpetrator committed the abuse, this standard is actually quite low. The definition of substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind could accept in support of a conclusion.
Substantial evidence is significantly lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidence standard that most criminal cases require. Beyond a reasonable doubt indicates that the prosecutor has offered sufficient evidence to show that the only possible conclusion is that the defendant is guilty. It is the highest legal standard. Between substantial evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt are several other standards, including “preponderance of evidence” and “clear and convincing evidence.” Preponderance of evidence is often the standard for civil cases and substantial evidence is frequently used at administrative hearings, such as an appeal of a government agency's decision or finding.
Fortunately, as the result of a court case in 2012, the burden of evidence is now “clear and convincing evidence.” This is a higher standard of proof, which is beneficial for those who wish to appeal findings. The Supreme Court defined clear and convincing as evidence that is substantially more likely to be true than untrue, and the administrative judge must believe that it is highly probable that the alleged behavior took place.
In cases such as a ChildLine appeal hearing, it's important that you understand this is not a criminal trial and there is no jury. Because the rules of evidence are laxer, evidence such as hearsay may be permissible. For example, under special compliance regulations, the agency can submit a recording of a child being questioned, or an individual can repeat what a child told them, and that could count as support for the report of child abuse.
Winning a ChildLine appeal hearing can be quite difficult, especially with such a low standard of proof. For something so important, you should have an experienced attorney represent you through the process and at the time of a hearing. An experienced attorney understands the intricacies of administrative hearings such as these and can ensure that your best interests are represented and fought for.
In What Ways Can a ChildLine Finding Impact My Life?
Prior to a listing, even a reported ChildLine case can affect your day-to-day. If a mandated reporter calls in their concerns, setting in motion an investigation, you may find yourself fighting for your child or children. The emotional toll is substantial as an investigation occurs. In some instances, criminal charges may even be filed as a result of the indication or investigation into the allegations.
Regardless of criminal charges, however, a listing on the ChildLine registry can negatively impact both your life and potentially the lives of those in your family. Children are one of the most vulnerable populations, and subsequently, those who are accused of child abuse and neglect may face even greater social stigma. Let's take a look at some of the prohibitions that might arise if your name has been placed on the ChildLine registry.
If you are either in the middle of a divorce proceeding or currently attempting to change the terms of custody for your children, a ChildLine report could decrease your chances of gaining custody of your children, whether partial or full. During this already-stressful time, the last thing you need is an additional concern about gaining custody of your loved ones.
Many varied types of work involve interactions with children. If your name is on the ChildLine list, you may find that many jobs in your chosen field are off-limits for you. When companies or organizations run a background check, they will most likely find your name on the registry and choose not to offer you the role. Here are some common fields that often involve work with children.
- Nursing / Medical
- Child Care
Many of these lines of work require significant years of training and education—education that often comes with loans that require regular payments. If you're unable to work in your field, you may have to take a job in a lower-paying industry, which could lead to difficulty paying your bills.
Certain degrees or courses involve working with children, and so again, they might be unavailable to you if your name has been listed in the ChildLine registry.
Volunteering at a Child's School or Event
One of the most important things to young children, especially, is when their parents volunteer for field trips or to help in the classroom. With your name on the registry, you will be prohibited from volunteering at the school. Do you want to miss the off-the-cuff classroom moments or the delight in your child's eyes when they first see a new animal on a zoo field trip?
Another example of affected activities would be coaching sports teams or other extracurriculars for your children. Boy Scouts, girl scouts, chess club… any outside activities would be off the table if your name is on the ChildLine registry.
Whether you work with children or you want to be able to volunteer in settings with children, tending to a ChildLine appeal request immediately is the best approach to take. Even if you don't have the desire to volunteer now, that could change in the future—and then it would be too late. An attorney with expertise is an ideal ally to help you curtail these potential negative impacts.
Do I Need a ChildLine Appeal Attorney to Help with my Case?
A ChildLine Appeal hearing may be one of the most important hearings you ever attend, with so much at stake—time with your child, employment, volunteer, and other consequences all could be negatively affected. While you might think that you could attempt to address it on your own, that is not the best possible option.
Take a look, for example, at the “Unified pre-hearing filing - child abuse expunction” form. The form is complex and long, and you don't want to chance filling it out incorrectly. If the pre-hearing filings require assistance, you can imagine that the actual hearings are even more complicated. Speaking with a professional who understands the ins and outs of the administrative hearing process ensures that you have the best chance at successfully expunging the record.
Finding the Best ChildLine Appeal Attorney in Pennsylvania
When faced with a subject that can so severely damage your future, you want to find the best attorney to fight by your side. The right attorney will understand how to navigate the complexity of your circumstances and how to file everything in a timely fashion. They can assist you at the hearing and ensure you're able to achieve the best possible outcome. For many years attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have successfully supported countless individuals and families across Pennsylvania seeking to have their names cleared or removed from the registry. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888.535.3686 or reach out online to discuss your case.