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Tough Call

When Is It Appropriate To Call Child Protective Services On Another Parent?

As a parent, you’re in constant protect mode — not only for you own kids, but in certain situations, with other people’s kids. Recognizing signs of child abuse is neither a fun topic of discussion nor something you want to spend a millisecond considering. But considering more than 700,000 kids are abused in this country annually, you absolutely should know the warning signs and what to do if you encounter it.

It may be a bruise poking out from beneath a shirt sleeve. It may be some other indicator of abuse that’s not physical. And adults often hesitate to call Child Services. Maybe they didn’t actually see what they did. And the last thing they want to do is break up a family or piss off a parent by wrongly accusing them of such a heinous act.

Ellen Smith, a Clinical Associate Professor and Child Welfare Training Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, understands. “Child protective services has the power to intervene in one of the most fundamental relationships that Americans have: the right for parents to make decisions about how to take care of their own children,” she says. But she stressed that the call needs to happen — and is easier to make and less devastating than you think.

Here, Smith, along with Ayoka Chapple, a social worker with the Los Angeles County Depart Of Children And Family Services, walk any concerned parent through the phone call nobody wants to make – but may need to.

First, Remember That Child Services Aren’t The Police

If you hear or witness something that seems to be putting a child in immediate danger, call the police. Full stop. Many callers tend to confuse Child Protective Services (or Social Services, or Child And Family Services as they’re sometimes called) with law enforcement. “We’re not in the punishment business,” says Smith. “We’re in the business of keeping kids safe in their homes.” The job of the authority is to investigate calls of abuse or neglect.

When To Make The Call

Per Smith, there are 3 main reasons to call child protective services.

  • Physical abuse. Does the child have signs of injury or do you believe there’s imminent threat of violence?
  • Sexual abuse. Have you seen certain behavioral signs, like flinching or raising of hands in a defense manner? Do you suspect some kind of sexually abusive or exploitative behavior?
  • Neglect. Does the child in question live in an unlivable environment? Are they left alone for long periods of time without proper care? A more thorough explanation can be found here.

And When Not To

When you have evidence of abuse, you need to contact CPS immediately. But Chapple says you shouldn’t pick up the phone if your claims don’t meet the above criteria. For instance, just because you suspect a father was drinking doesn’t mean he actually has been abusive with a child. You will need to have something semi-substantial to be of service.

It’s Important To Know Your Legislation

Federal legislation gives a general definition of abuse, but some critical details vary from state to state. While you might not know those details, the trained social worker responding to the call certainly will.

“A common example would be that in some places if a child witnesses domestic violence, that’s considered child abuse and neglect,” says Smith. “In other states, witnessing domestic violence doesn’t constitute child abuse or neglect.” So even if you find out what you saw doesn’t meet state criteria, you should still call and let social services figure it out.

You Can Call Anonymously

By placing a call to the national child abuse hotline or connecting with local resources through state numbers, listed here, you’re telling an authority that you believe someone is unfit to be a parent. And both Chapple and Smith say many cases aren’t reported because callers worry about retaliation from unfit parents who may also be unfit humans. Note that most states allow you to report cases anonymously. You might have to provide your name and address for a follow-up, but it won’t be disclosed. If the on-call worker fears immediate danger, then local offices dispense help that day.

Red Flags Can Be Misleading, But They Still Need To Be Reported

“A child wearing the same dirty clothes for days on end? That may not necessarily be evidence of neglect,” offers Chapple. “It could just mean their washing machine is broken.” In other words, how can you really know what’s abuse or just a weird circumstance?

Chapple and Smith say it’s not a caller’s job to determine whether abuse or neglect occurred. Rather, their job most often is to provide observations and information that help workers keep an eye on certain families or corroborate other people’s claims.

You Won’t Get In Trouble For Calling

Several states threaten legal repercussions for false alarms about child abuse. But you don’t have to worry about them if you call in good faith — even if you make a report in error. Those rules are in place to discourage people with a grudge from using child services as a weapon. “Typically where we see that is a neighbor or someone who has a vendetta who calls repeatedly to make false allegations,” says Smith.

A Call Doesn’t Always Mean An Immediate Investigation

Per Chapple, Los Angeles County DCFS receives about 200,000 calls a year but only investigates about 150,000 of them. It’s not because there are too many calls, not enough resources. It’s because the workers are trained professionals who know when a report requires action. “Maybe it isn’t something that warrants intrusion on people’s lives,” Smith says. “Part of the job of someone answering the phone is to educate the caller.” So, consider yourself educated and empowered.