Child abuse is often a hidden crime. Typically, once suspected abuse gets reported the state or local child protective services (“CPS”) agency will step in to investigate, and if necessary, take action. Every state has its own rules, but the process is largely the same. You can get an idea of how the process works by looking at New York State as an example.
Step 1: Investigation of child abuse
In New York, CPS is required to investigate every reported case of suspected abuse. CPS will typically make an unannounced home visit within 48 hours of a report. CPS must see and speak with any children in the house, and will also speak to all the adults in the house. The investigation will check for signs of proper care, including adequate food and sleeping arrangements. Investigators will check for hazards. CPS will also provide the parents with a “Notice of Existence,” which is a notice that an active investigation is underway. In addition to the home visit, CPS investigators will also speak with other people that have contact with the child. This could include family, neighbors, teachers, doctors, and friends.
Step 2: Determination and actions were taken
Within 60 days of opening the case, New York CPS investigators will determine if a report of suspected abuse is “indicated” or “unfounded.” Unfounded means that CPS did not find evidence to support a finding of abuse or neglect. The parents (or other caregivers) will be notified that the investigation has concluded and they may be offered come community-based or preventative services. If CPS finds that the report of suspected abuse was “founded,” that means that there is evidence of abuse or neglect. The parents will receive a “Notice of Indication” and will have an opportunity to review and appeal the findings.
The American legal system, like most legal systems throughout history, is loath to break up families. As a result, the most likely outcome of an abuse case is that the state will order the parents into counseling or training. The family may be supervised by a caseworker for some time. In more extreme cases, however, children can be removed from the home. In New York, as in most states, child safety officials have the authority to conduct an emergency removal to hold a child under state supervision until a family court can review the situation.
The family court largely works to keep families together. So even in an abuse situation, the parent is given a state-appointed advocate and the children are typically placed in foster care only until the parents can show the child will be safe in their home again. Parents retain most of their parental rights, such as visiting their children and having a say in their care. Parental rights are only terminated in the most extreme circumstances, like “permanent neglect” or “severe and repeated abuse.” Once parental rights are terminated, there is no turning back and the former parent no longer has any legal parenting role in the child’s life.
Step 3: Records and registries
Each state has its own rules for maintaining records of child abuse. In general, however, anyone accused of child abuse will have their report stored until the child becomes an adult. These records can come up in subsequent investigations.
Beware of false reporting
Most states have protections for anyone that reports a good faith suspicion of child abuse. Many states even require individuals to report suspected abuse. Because of this push to report, some false reports will happen. There can be serious consequences, however, for anyone that makes a knowingly false report. This will sometimes happen in a divorce or similar dispute, and it can lead to jail time and serious fines.
Also Read: Child Abuse Laws
Discipline and abuse
Most states allow parents to use some level of corporal punishment to discipline their child. Drawing the line between discipline and abuse can be challenging, but in general, anyone that hits their child out of anger and causes serious injury can wind up facing scrutiny from child protective services.
Neglect and abuse
Another form of abuse is neglect. This can range from letting a child go hungry to failing to provide proper clothes. This can be a controversial issue, as the government needs to protect children but often does not want to punish parents for struggling financially.