What Happens When Someone Reports Child Abuse?
Accusing a parent of abusing or neglecting his/her child is a serious claim that brings a number of significant consequences for both the child and the parent. Consequently, they should not be made lightly, or without direct knowledge that mistreatment is occurring. The legal process starts as soon as a child abuse report is made, which could into lead into a dependency case if the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) decides to pursue it. A dependency case is one of the worst possible situations for a parent to face because the potential outcome is as grave as a complete loss of all parental rights. Unfortunately, not all reports of child abuse are made in good faith, resulting in the waste of State resources and unnecessary agony for the innocent parents. A recent news story out of Holmes County, located in the Panhandle, looks at a woman convicted of filing 28 false reports of child abuse solely to create “havoc.” This scenario is easily a parent’s worst nightmare. But, arming parents with a basic understanding of what happens in the wake of a child abuse report could help them better respond to law enforcement and child protective investigators, which could reduce the likelihood that a dependency case is even filed.
What Is Needed to File a Report?
Suspected child abuse or neglect may be reported via a hotline or online form managed by DCFS. Counselors review all reports to determine if they meet the guidelines for initiating a formal investigation. The information disclosed to DCFS must, at a minimum, indicate the following:
- reasonable suspicion that a child;
- who lives in Florida, or will return in the immediate future;
- was harmed, or is threatened with harm;
- by a person in charge of the child’s care.
As is likely apparent, this standard is fairly easy to meet, making it much easier for someone to fabricate a story for personal gain, intimidation or harassment. Further, the person reporting the abuse is not required to give his/her name (minus certain mandatory reporting requirements for designated individuals – school officials, social workers or doctors, for example), which means a parent may never know who made the accusation.
Who Is Sent to Respond?
If the counselor assessing the abuse report decides an investigation is warranted, the report is forwarded to the local DCFS investigative office for assignment. If an immediate response is requested, investigators try to locate the child and assess the situation as soon as possible. In any case, the assigned investigator must make contact with the child within 24 hours of receiving the assignment. In addition to a representative from DCFS, law enforcement is made aware of child abuse reports that involve the potential commission of a crime. If law enforcement decides to investigate, it is likely with the intent of arresting the person they consider a continuing threat to the child.
Parent’s Rights during Investigation
As the discussion suggests, once an investigation is started, a parent’s control over the situation is limited. However, parents are entitled to certain information and the exercise of specified rights while the investigation is active, including:
- the purpose of the investigation;
- the right to hire an attorney and how information provided to DCFS may be used;
- the possible outcomes of the investigation; and
- the right to fully participate in determining why the report was made, the nature of identified problems in the household, and potential methods to remedy these issues.
Get Legal Advice
Most parents do everything they can to support and protect their children, but if you are facing a dependency action, you need to hire a family law attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights. The Fort Lauderdale law office of Joyce A. Julian, P.A. has substantial experience representing parents in these cases, and will fight to get you the best possible outcome. Contact the office today to schedule a free consultation.