A ChildLine investigation can be a scary experience. You get a letter, maybe completely out of the blue, telling you your county's Department of Children and Youth or equivalent agency is investigating you for alleged child abuse. That's a serious accusation, but anyone could have reported you. Maybe it was a doctor or a teacher, but maybe it was just a woman at the grocery store who didn't like the way you spoke to your child. If anyone can report you, can you really trust the investigative process? How do you know investigators will listen to your side of the story? How do you know they'll believe you? What happens if they don't?
There is a process in place for investigating allegations, and while it doesn't go far enough, it does provide you with some basic protections. You have to know what these protections are, though, in order to use them effectively. The fact is, the system does mistreat a lot of the people it investigates. You can't be sure that a social worker will believe you; you can't know when something about your personality might just rub them the wrong way. You can be entirely innocent and still wind up on the ChildLine registry, and that can have a number of long-term consequences for you and your family.
The only way to make sure your rights are protected is to contact an attorney the very moment you find out you're under investigation. Only an attorney can make sure your investigator listens, and only an attorney knows what to do if they don't.
What Is ChildLine?
First things first: what is ChildLine exactly, and why should it matter to you?
ChildLine is a Pennsylvania program set up to “accept child abuse referrals and general child well-being concerns and transmit the information quickly to the appropriate investigating agency.” Simply put, its purpose is to help keep kids safe. That's a noble goal.
The problem is when you allow anyone's allegation to trigger an investigation, with no requirement for substantiation or due process of any kind, the system is bound to be misused. In fact, one recent report from Pennsylvania Child Protective Services found that the substantiation rate for ChildLine referrals is just 7.2 percent. Put another way, almost 93 percent of all allegations were unsubstantiated. That's an enormous number of parents being wrongfully accused of abuse.
Given this situation, you can understand why some people might view the entire system as suspect. If there's no check on reporting, how do you know you'll be treated fairly when you're investigated?
What Is the ChildLine Process?
Of course, ChildLine doesn't just take callers' word for it. There is a process in place for investigating allegations, and that process does provide you with some protections. Here's how it works.
The ChildLine Abuse Registry receives all reports of abuse and, after processing them, passes them on to a Child, Youth, and Family (CYF) agency at the county level. This is supposed to happen within 24 hours of the initial complaint. The case then proceeds through a series of steps.
- Screening: The agency must determine whether or not a given report actually warrants an investigation. Of course, if the agency or law enforcement has reason to believe a child is in imminent danger, they typically act immediately to find the child and, in some cases, to remove the child from the home. On the other hand, the agency also has the power to dismiss complaints that don't seem to have genuine merit.
- Investigation: If the agency decides to investigate, an assigned caseworker contacts the family to schedule a home visit. As part of the investigation, caseworkers typically interview family members, survey the family's living conditions, and observe family interaction. They also conduct a risk assessment. This involves rating several factors in the family's living situation—like the child's vulnerability, the parents' emotional stability, and any prior history of violence in the home—on a scale from no risk to high risk. Investigations can take up to thirty days, and in some cases, this time frame can be extended for an additional thirty days.
- Determination: Once the investigation is complete, the caseworker must decide whether the allegations are unfounded, founded, or indicated. Obviously, any unfounded allegations are dismissed. Indicated allegations means the caseworker has uncovered some evidence but not enough to be certain abuse has occurred. A founded report means the caseworker has determined the abuse claim is valid. This decision is supposed to be based on three factors:
- Information uncovered as part of the investigation itself
- Confession from the abuser
- Medical evidence of abuse
Protecting Your Rights
The fact is, even with a process in place, ultimately, the investigator may still decide to issue you a founded report. Maybe they don't like your particular living situation; maybe they child welfare differently than you do; maybe they just don't believe your story. What do you do in that case? How do you make sure you are heard?
First, you want to be proactive. Don't wait for an investigator to decide you're lying and submit a founded report. Make sure you have a lawyer beside you from the moment the investigation starts, someone who can help you answer questions and who can make sure investigators give you a fair hearing.
In addition, an attorney can make sure the investigator's assessment is honest. While a ChildLine investigation does not provide most of the due process protections you deserve, there are certain standards your case must meet before a caseworker can simply designate you as a child abuser. For instance, decisions are supposed to be based on a “clear and convincing” standard of evidence. That means a caseworker should believe it is substantially likely that the abuse occurred. An attorney can make sure they actually take standards like these into account.
Finally, an attorney can help you appeal a founded report and help you get your name removed from the ChildLine registry. The process involves an administrative hearing, and it can be complicated and difficult to navigate. With the right help, though, you can get your name removed and salvage your reputation and your family's well-being.
Joseph D. Lento Can Help With ChildLine Cases
Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense attorney who can help in ChildLine cases. Whether you're looking to protect yourself during an investigation or need to appeal an unfavorable report, Joseph D. Lento is on your side. He understands the system can be unfair, and he's prepared to fight for your future.
If you've been accused of child abuse through the ChildLine system, contact the Law Offices of Joseph D. Lento today to find out how we can help. Call 888.535.3686 or use our automated response form.