If you believe a child is being abused or maltreated, you can anonymously report it to child protective services, or CPS, by calling the hotline in your state or county. But this is not the only way to help a child who is in need. If you believe a child is in imminent danger, call 911, which you can also do anonymously, if necessary.
Identifying Child Abuse and Maltreatment
Approximately 60 percent of all calls to CPS are made anonymously. Of those calls, however, less than 2 percent are substantiated by any evidence by CPS after its investigation. Before making a report, it's important to have some degree of certainty that what you have witnessed is really harmful to a child. Specific definitions of child abuse and maltreatment vary from state to state, but the general definition is straightforward: Child abuse occurs when a parent, guardian or anyone else legally responsible for the child has:
- inflicted serious physical or mental injury to a child
- substantially risked a child's life
- caused serious or prolonged disfigurement
- caused prolonged impairment of a child's physical or emotional health
- sexually abused a child
- permitted someone else to do any of the above
A maltreated child is any child who has been physically, mentally or emotionally harmed when a parent, guardian or anyone else legally responsible for the child has:
- failed to supply the child with adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical care or education
- unreasonably inflicted harm, or risk of harm, on a child
- allowed someone else to inflict harm, or risk of harm, on a child
- misused drugs or alcohol to the point where he loses control of his actions
- abandoned a child
Note that any adult living in the same home as a child is usually considered to be legally responsible for that child.
What Happens When You Make a Report?
When you make a report to CPS, the response is usually immediate, with an investigation beginning within 24 hours. CPS notifies the adults responsible for the child that a report has been filed and an investigation has started. CPS may see the child first, if they feel the situation warrants it. They can also take the child into protective custody.
In following weeks, CPS determines if the complaint is credible or unfounded. Any evidence of abuse or maltreatment can make the report credible, but it may not always be enough evidence on which to submit a petition to the court for a hearing. If the evidence suggests the threat to the child isn't serious, the report can be closed. The family may be offered support or counseling to prevent further neglect or abuse. If the parents or guardians refuse this offer, CPS can ask a judge to make their recommendations mandatory.
Other Ways to Intervene
Contacting CPS is often the best way to ensure that a child will be protected, but it isn't your only option. You always have the choice to call the local police. A third option is to contact someone in a profession or field that legally requires them to contact CPS with their name and contact information. People in these positions are called mandatory reporters, because they are required by law to report suspected abuse or maltreatment. These positions include:
- teachers and principals
- child care providers
- doctors and nurses
- therapists and counselors
- social workers
- law enforcement officers
If you are in any way uncertain if you have witnessed child abuse or maltreatment, you may want to talk to someone in one of these professions who knows the child or the child's family, such as a school teacher or health care provider.