Child abuse - should YOU report it?
by Emma Smith, M.A.
As Child Welfare Professionals, my colleagues and I are often asked questions about when, how, and under what circumstances it may be necessary to call Child Protective Services (CPS). We know that calling CPS can feel scary, because it could have serious ramifications for children and their families. Often times, people choose not to call because they don’t want to make a mistake, or they assume that another person, maybe someone with more information, will call in. Whatever the reasoning, we want you to feel confident, knowledgeable
and empowered to determine the best course of action if you ever face this difficult decision. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and in light of that, we’ve compiled some frequently asked questions and answers that could be helpful if you suspect a child is at risk of harm.
I’m concerned about the health, safety or wellbeing of a child in my life. How do I know when to call CPS?
The three main reasons to call CPS are when you suspect:
1. Physical Abuse- Has the child sustained a serious physical injury, or is the child in immediate danger of harm? Has the child disclosed being injured by another person? Do they have marks or bruises as a result?
2. Neglect- Has the child been harmed physically, mentally or emotionally because a parent/caretaker has failed to provide a minimal level of care for the child’s basic needs?
3. Sexual Abuse- Has the parent/caregiver committed sexual acts against the child or allowed these acts to be committed by someone else? Has the child been sexually exploited or witnessed sexual acts as a result of the action (or inaction) of a caregiver?
What happens after I call?
In Michigan, when you call the hotline to report abuse or neglect (Centralized Intake), a child welfare professional will answer your call and gather information from you. You might not know all of the answers to the questions they ask, and that’s ok. After they talk to you and gather all the information you provide, they can either “screen out” (deny) the allegation or “assign it for investigation.” There are a number of reasons why a call might be screened out. It could be that this allegation has already been called in and investigated, that CPS is already working with the family to correct the problem, or that the allegation does not meet the definition of abuse or neglect.
If a call is assigned for investigation, it’s transferred to a worker in the county where the child lives. CPS has 24 hours to verify the well-being of the child. If the child is school-aged, they will often meet the child at school to conduct a forensic interview. After that, the CPS worker will make an unannounced visit to the child’s home and interview the parents/caregivers as well. They will assess the safety and wellbeing of the child and their home environment, talk to other important people in the child’s life, and eventually make a determination about whether or not to substantiate the allegations.
What if I don’t know for sure that abuse actually happened? Should I still call?
Yes. It doesn’t matter that you might not know all the details, all you need is a suspicion of abuse or neglect to have a valid reason for calling CPS. Does this mean you should go around calling for any child you see with a bump, scrape or bruise? Of course not. You do need to be able to provide something semi-substantial in order to be of service. However, even if your
allegation is denied, that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. For example, you might call in and report that you suspect a child’s parent is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This wouldn’t necessarily meet the criteria for a case to be assigned, but if multiple people have called
in concerns about the child, this could aid CPS in determining whether a child is in an unsafe environment. That’s why we always tell people, when in doubt, call it in. It is not your responsibility to determine whether abuse or neglect occurred. Your job is to provide observations and information to help child welfare professionals keep an eye on certain families or corroborate other people’s claims. If you think there’s a legitimate reason to call CPS, do it, and let the professionals determine whether intervention is necessary. Remember, you always have the option of calling anonymously, and there are no repercussions for calling in a report of abuse or neglect that turns out to be unsubstantial.
Will the child be taken away from their family?
The short answer is, it depends. CPS removes children from their parents as a last resort. If at all possible, they want to keep children in their home with their families. A child is only removed if there is an imminent risk of harm that cannot be rectified with a safety plan or services provided by the local DHHS agency. If a child is removed as a result of your call, it is either because the child’s safety is in immediate jeopardy and removal is the only way to ensure further harm will not occur, or because your call was one of many, and despite the safety planning and services being provided to the family, the child would remain in an unsafe situation without.
Number to report Child Abuse or Neglect (Centralized Intake): (855) 444-3911
To learn more, join us for Take Ten on Thursday, April 16 at noon on Facebook Live.