What Happens When You’re Hotlined for Child Abuse?
This article applies to the United States, as I don’t know the laws and procedures in other countries.
Hotlines for child abuse or neglect feel horrible and terrifying. I know this as a therapist and as a mother. My oldest son “failed to thrive” so his doctor hotlined a couple of times thinking I wasn’t feeding him. Further, his father thought it was great fun to hotline me every time we had a disagreement over parenting. Before long I knew the routine in my sleep.
“Yes, come right in.”
“Sure, look in the refrigerator and cabinets.”
“Would you like to see his bedroom?”
Those hotlines frightened me, but because I was able to prove I wasn’t abusing or neglecting my son, they didn’t otherwise affect me.
Unfortunately, that’s not what always happens. I’m going to start by defining some terms here so that you understand what is going on.
A hotline reports abuse or neglect to the agency in your state responsible for children’s welfare. This agency is the Children’s Division, Family Services, Child Protective Services, or something else. It investigates all allegations of abuse or neglect it gets. The agency sometimes removes the child or children from the home for their safety.
Anyone can hotline child abuse. They give the operator the name or names of the children involved, a description of what is going on, and how to find the children and the family during the phone call.
Some people, mandated reporters, must call the hotline if they suspect abuse. Rules are different state to state, but usually, anyone who works with children is required to report abuse if they suspect it. This includes therapists, teachers, daycare workers, and similar roles. Religious leaders, police officers, and various medical professions are usually mandated reporters as well.
A mandated reporter must report any suspected abuse. They aren’t allowed to investigate and wait. Mandated reporters must report even if they don’t believe the child. They must report even if there is no evidence other than something the child said. Even if they truly, honestly like and trust the person accused of abuse.
Further, a mandated reporter can’t usually to tell the person they are hotlining that they will be doing it. If that suspected abuser flees with the children after a mandated reporter gives them a heads up, that mandated reporter could be charged with a felony as well as lose any professional licenses they might have.
A hotline doesn’t mean that the person who hotlined you doesn’t like you or even thinks you’re a terrible parent. It just means that they have reason to suspect that you did something that met the definition of abuse or neglect in your state – even if it was only one time.
For instance, it was true that my oldest son was a failure to thrive infant, and that failure to thrive syndrome is often linked to abuse or neglect. In my case, my son was almost certainly being abused, but it didn’t happen in my home and it was easy for me to prove that. So my family wasn’t sent to court or separated.
What do I do? I’ve been hotlined for child abuse!
Okay, now what? The hotline operator is going to measure the accusations against some definitions that your state has created to decide whether or not this is abuse or neglect. If it meets those definitions, they’ll send someone to the home and/or school and interview several of the people involved. This includes you, other adults in your home, any child or children involved, other professionals who may have some information, and other people involved. Sometimes they will call the person who made the hotline for clarification.
Here are some representative samples of abuse definitions:
Neglect includes any behavior that prevents a child from getting their basic needs met. This includes not feeding them, or not feeding them enough. Sometimes, it includes not ensuring that they get to school or otherwise get an education. It includes failing to get a child medical treatment for any ailment that is a danger to them. Other times, it can include not watching the child closely enough to prevent them from injuring themselves or endangering themselves. It includes leaving dangerous substances where a small child has access to them. It also includes having a house with unsafe conditions for your child including structural issues and severe issues with cleanliness or clutter.
In my state, Missouri, physical abuse is when you injure a child or strike a child anywhere except on their buttocks using anything other than an open hand. This includes throwing things at the child, burning them. even accidents can be abuse if a “reasonable person” would have known they were in danger. Using an object such as a paddle or whip to discipline is always considered abuse in my state. Your state rules may be stricter or less strict. You can usually find these rules online.
Sexual abuse includes exposing a young child inappropriately to sex or sexual materials such as porn. If your child catches you and your partner once or twice by accident that’s not usually abuse. If you make no effort to prevent your child from watching you have sex, that can be abuse. Sexual abuse includes touching a child in a sexual way or having them touch you in a sexual way. It includes having that child posing for pictures or in videos that are used for sexual gratification.
I saved emotional abuse for last because it is so poorly understood by so many parents, and even mandated reporters. I want to give it a little extra attention. Emotional abuse is when the words you use and the way you interact with a child serve to tell that child that they are worthless or unlovable or “bad” in some way. It is a pattern of failing to provide for a child’s emotional needs for attention, affection, and reasoned guidance. It can include yelling, name-calling, shaming (especially public shaming) and indicating to the child and others that the child is “not worth loving”. If the words you are using and ideas you are expressing to your child are causing them to develop depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or severe conduct issues, that is emotional abuse.
The Effects of Abuse and Neglect:
All four conditions, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse, can have serious impacts on a child’ development. The child can develop physical and mental health symptoms that can take years to treat or become a lifetime condition. Abused and neglected children are significantly more likely than other children to self-harm and attempt suicide. Depression and anxiety and PTSD are common in abused and neglected children. Borderline Personality Disorder is often rooted in long term emotional abuse. Eating disorders also often stem from childhood abuse. Addiction is almost always rooted in childhood abuse.
The state has a stake in protecting children because children are vulnerable and need protection And also because it costs taxpayers money to fix the problems that abuse and neglect cause in children.
Investigation Process When You’re Hotlined for Child Abuse
Someone has reported that your child has been abused or neglected. The state agency orders a local office to investigate if necessary based on the report. One or more agency worker, sometimes with a police officer, visits your house and asks questions. The investigators will look around your house to make sure it is safe for your child. Your child may talk to them at their school or another place away from your home.
They will make one of three decisions:
- The hotline is unsubstantiated: In other words, they see no signs of abuse or neglect.
- The hotline requires family intervention. There may or may not be abuse or neglect, but the family needs extra support
- The hotline is substantiated. The worker has found evidence that there is abuse or neglect.
will my child be taken away from me?
Maybe. Most people think Children’s Division will take their children from them if they are found to be abusing their children. And they might be. But Children’s Division will look first for someone in your family or friendship group that can keep your child safe. They then go through the process of helping you with the things you need to do to have your child returned to you. You will keep custody of your child, with supervision If they think you abused your child but now your child can be safe. The agency then helps you with issues causing the abuse,
No one wants to take a child from their parents. If Children’s Division took your child, the workers truly believed that you were a danger to that child. Children’s Division workers, like all humans, have prejudices and blind spots, but they do the best within the very limited time they have in their overworked system to do what is best for that child. It’s not personal. Their job isn’t to steal your child¸ their job is to keep your child safe.
If my children are taken from me, how do I get them back?
If the “worst” happens and the agency takes your child, getting them back is both simple and difficult. It’s as simple as doing exactly what the judge and the DFS workers tell you to do. You will have to do several things to get your children back, and some of those things will cost you time and money you may not be able to afford. Most child protection agencies have funding to help with the cost of some of those things, but they don’t advertise it. Ask for financial assistance to meet the goals they’re requiring of you if you need to.
To get your child back:
- Goto all meetings and court dates set in your children’s case
- Take all drug tests they tell you to take (and passing them)
- Make any repairs and modifications to the home they require
- Attend any parenting classes, anger management classes, therapy, or rehab they expect you to attend.
- Demonstrate that you have learned parenting skills when in supervised visits with your children.
- End relationships with anyone who has been accused of abusing your child, if you were not the abuser. Courts often require this, and if not, it’s still a good way to protect your child. Children’s Division will find out if you continue that relationship behind the court’s back, and you’re unlikely to get another chance.
Enlist the help of family and friends if you can to make sure that you are able to meet all of the court’s requirements.
the decision-making process at children’s division and family court
Children’s Division workers can’t read minds, so they and the family court judges will give you things to do that show you understand how to protect your child. If you are able to finish those tasks and follow the court’s rules, you will probably get your children back. If not, you probably won’t.
Children’s division prefers to keep families together. They will only send your child to permanent foster care or adoption if that isn’t possible.
Even if you’re not ordered to by the court, you might want to get into individual or family therapy during this process. You’re likely to have a lot of grief and anger and mixed emotions. You will want support and assistance with navigating the system. A good therapist will help you with all these things and will not be judgmental about what happened.
During the process of determining custody, your child will have their own attorney, their Guardian ad Litem or GAL. Guardian ad Litem means “guardian under the law” and this lawyer will be making legal decisions for your child. The state agency will also have their own lawyer. You will probably want to have a lawyer as well if you possibly can.
Don’t vent to family and friends. It’s best to keep as much of this situation to yourself as possible, especially on social media. Legal cases like this can turn on things that seem very small to you but are very important to the court.
further reminders about being hotlined for child abuse:
I hope this helps ease your anxiety in the unhappy case that you are watching this video because your child has been placed with a family member, friend, or foster family while your family is being investigated. While the system isn’t perfect, it generally has two goals. The first is always the safety of the child. The second is, if possible, to reunite the family. If you follow the court’s and the caseworker’s instructions carefully, you will be helping them do their job and are more likely to be reunified with your child.
Thie system is not doing this to you. It is trying to protect your child. You may feel angry and resentful of the system and whoever it was that alerted them to your situation. However, it is not and was not personal. No one did this because they “don’t like you” or “think you’re awful”. They did this because a child was possibly in danger.
We need our child protective agencies. Very few parents who abuse or neglect their children do it because they don’t love their children. Most of them do it because of lack of parenting skills. Some do it because of issues in their lives such as domestic violence, poverty, mental health issues, and addiction. When the child is protected, the family also gets an intervention that can often make the situation for the whole family better in the long run. If your child goes to kinship or foster care, it is because the agency believes that is what is best for your child.
Do the things you need to do to make your’s and your child’s lives better. Let go of the anger and hurt of being hotlined for child abuse. Yours and your child’s lives will be better for it.
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