Child protection agencies exist in each state in the United States, in order to provide regulations and procedures for dealing with cases of child abuse and neglect. Reports of abuse should be made to these agencies, who can then investigate the allegations and take appropriate steps to ensure the safety and welfare of the children in question.
The names of these agencies vary by state. In some states the agency is called Child Protective Services (CPS), while it may variously be called Department of Child Services (DCS), Department of Human Services (DHS), Department of Children and Families (DCF), and other names as chosen by the state. Their function in each case, though, is essentially the same.
Prior to the twentieth century, child services functions in the United States were largely undertaken, if at all, by local and charitable organizations. In 1912, a federal Children’s Bureau was formed to deal with issues of child abuse. Concern for child abuse and neglect issues continued to rise, and 49 states had enacted child abuse reporting laws by the 1960s.
The Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act of 1974 was then passed, which required abuse reporting. In response, many state began forming modern Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies.
Although each state has its own agency, laws and regulations, there is a general procedure that states tend to follow. The general process is:
- The process starts when a report of abuse or neglect is made to the state’s CPS. For people in certain professions who work with children, reports of abuse or neglect can be mandatory;
- Once the report is made, the child protective agency must investigate the report to determine whether it is true. The agency must gather all the facts available to determine this. The type of information they gather, specifically, can include: interviews with relevant parties, observations of relevant parties and their interactions, and any relevant documents. The agency will have a certain amount of time to respond depending on the nature and severity of the allegations (according to the state’s laws);
- If the risk to the child is low, or nonexistent, the agency may work with the family to improve their situation, or simply make a finding that there was no child abuse or child neglect. If the agency finds that there is reason to suspect abuse or neglect, the child may be temporarily removed from the home;
- Children usually remain with their parents unless the situation is one that is higher-risk. There is a presumption by courts that children should be with their biological parents, and agencies may work with families to allow this to happen. However, in high-risk cases, the child protective agency can go through the juvenile court to have action taken to ensure the child’s safety; and
- In the worst cases, where the agency can’t work with the parents to improve the child’s home situation, the court will remain involved in the process in order to make sure the child is kept safe. This may result in the child being permanently removed from the home and placed in a group home.
There are several categories of abuse and neglect that should be reported to the state’s child protection agency. These include:
- Physical Abuse: The non-accidental injury of a child through physical force, by their parent or other caretaker;
- Emotional abuse: Using criticism, rejection and other confidence-damaging tactics to harm a child;
- Sexual Abuse: Enticing or coercing a child into sexual activity;
- Neglect: Ignoring and failing to fulfill a child’s basic needs, including not only food and shelter, but their medical, educational and emotional needs;
- Abandonment: When the child is left alone and the parent’s whereabouts are unknown; and
- Substance Abuse: This can include a parent’s prenatally exposing a child to a substance they are abusing, manufacturing drugs in the child’s presence, and the substance abuse of a parent which prevents them from properly caring for the child.
Anyone who is aware of a situation that involves child abuse or neglect should report it to their state’s child protective agency. However, for those who are in professions where they work closely with children, there may be a mandatory reporting requirement.
The following types of employees must report abuse or neglect if they become aware of it:
- Medical and hospital personnel;
- School officials;
- Social service workers;
- Residential care workers; and
- Law enforcement personnel.
If you are experiencing issues surrounding a report of child abuse or neglect, you should contact an experienced family law attorney. The attorney can advise you of your rights, and assist with having your child returned to your custody if you feel they have been wrongfully removed.