Reporting Suspected Abuse
Reporting suspected abuse is a hard decision to make. Is it bad enough to qualify as abuse? Would they investigate for sure or ignore my report, I've heard of cases where people report over and over and nothing happens? Whom do I report it to? What do I say? Would my report make it better or worse for the victim, I've heard that sometimes police showing up at their doorstep only makes things worse? Will I know the results? What if I have no proof? How long would it take? Will I have to testify in court, as a witness? What if I heard of it online, I don't have their name/address, can I still report? How and to whom? This page does not provide legal advice, just some things you might not know or think about if you've never reported suspected abuse before.
Types of abuse you can and cannot report:
You can only report abuse of children (under 18), dependent adults, and elderly. That means that you cannot report domestic violence towards your friend, daughter, or coworker - she needs to call police herself. It might be frustrating and feel wrong, but it's her call to make, her decision, and that's the law. On another note, if she has children and they are exposed to violence - that constitutes child abuse, and that you can report.
Am I legally required to report?
Depends on laws of your state/country. In some jurisdictions everyone is mandated to report suspected child abuse, you get penalized if you don't. In USA it's 18 States and Puerto Rico: Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. In Canada it's everywhere except Yukon Territory. In other jurisdictions you're mandated to report child abuse only if you're in a profession where you come in contact with children (such as a doctor, teacher, social worker, etc). This information does not constitute legal advice, if you want to know your local laws - google them, or contact a lawyer. At any rate - everyone is welcome to report child abuse if they wish to, even if they're not mandated to. For other types of abuse - please look up your local laws, you might or might not be obligated to report.
If you're not required to report:
Think of a broken streetlight. If you notice one - it's nice to be a good citizen and call the city to give them heads up. When you do this, you aren't pondering questions such as - will they really fix it or just say thanks and never do anything about it? what if it breaks again? how much would it cost to fix it, can city budget afford it? what if someone reported it already? These aren't your problems - city officials know about fixing broken streetlights more than you do. You did your part, alerted them to the problem - the rest is out of your hands. Reporting abuse is very similar except for one important distinction - hundreds of people drive by that streetlight, chances are that someone will call the city, so you don't really have to be a good citizen if you don't feel like it. While abuse is usually secret. How many people know about the situation you have in mind now, reading this page? The perpetrator (who obviously won't call police on themself), the victim (who is unable to do it), and you. Someone might be getting hurt, can't ask for help, and the only person who suspects it and could help - isn't sure if they should interfere or not. Put yourself in their shoes.
- Does it count as abuse? You can keep googling definitions and asking random strangers online - or you can let professionals make this call. They will know for sure, if it's abuse or not. They aren't monsters looking to take helpless children away from their loving families - they have enough cases to work with as is, if what you're reporting isn't bad enough - they won't take the case. Report your suspicion/concern, let them decide if it's abuse or not. Besides, who said that what you know isn't just a tip of the iceberg and there's more to it?
- Do I have enough evidence? You don't have to have evidence, it's authorities' job to gather it, not yours. Also - many people don't realize just how much information they actually have, that it all counts and makes a difference. The child self injures, has mentioned suicide, school grades dropped - seems irrelevant, but this is a major bit of information, shows impact of suspected abuse on the child, proves that the situation does in fact hurt them.
- Would they take the child away? They might or they might not, depending on the situation. They try work things out with the family so that the child doesn't have to go to foster care - but she obviously needs to if her life is in danger or she's getting molested on daily basis. In milder cases they would instead do regular inspections, require the parents to take parenting classes, etc. If you have a strong opinion on what's best for the child - voice it when you make your report.
- Would police only make it worse for the victim? This is what most victims believe and fear - but it's rarely true. Police, Child Protective Services, all these people - they are trained specifically to work with situations of abuse. They understand that their involvement might make things worse, and take necessary steps to minimize this risk. Yes, the victim might receive an extra yelling or even an extra beating. This might sound cruel, but - they are getting beat up on daily basis as it is, if it won't be about police visit - it will be about something else. Walking on eggshells doesn't prevent abuse - one needs to be brave and reach out for help, it's the only way out. Voice your concern when you make the report, so that they know to take extra precautions. They usually ask about it anyway.
- What if I call and they do nothing? Yes, it might happen that they won't do anything. Either because they don't see the situation as abusive, or because they don't have enough information, - or because system is imperfect and sometimes things don't happen the way they should. There are two things you need to know. First - every report stays on file. Even if they do nothing about it now - the next report will be taken more seriously, because there's already a history there. And second - if you don't report, the chances of nothing happening are 100%. Do your part.
- What do I say when I call? Say, "Hello, I'd like to report suspected child abuse (or whatever type of abuse you're reporting)," - they'll take it from there. It's a boring and somewhat frustrating process because you're trying to relate your concern and they're trying to ask you questions according to their protocol - really best way around is to sit back, calm down, and let them have their way. Answer their questions patiently, they'll get to the issue on their own terms. It's not because of bureaucracy - they're just trying to cover all sides of the story, to make sure they aren't missing a big chunk of it that you could have forgotten to mention or didn't know was important. Majority of reports that don't end up investigated were incomplete - the person hung up before providing crucial information, such as the address of their neighbor that they are calling about. You can also report suspected abuse online - many jurisdictions offer such options, google your location for more info. If that's how you chose to report your concern - you'll have to fill out a few pages of a really boring questionnaire asking you all sorts of details about you, the victim, the perpetrator, and the situation. Be prepared that they might call you a few days later to verify or clarify your report.
- Will I know the results of my report? No, you will not. Not from authorities. This information is confidential and they won't be able to disclose it to you. The best way around is to report your concerns and let it go. Your job is not to save the victim - no single person can do that - it's to do your part so that others can do theirs.
What number do I call?
Depends on your location. Search for the number of Child Protective Services (CPS) in your area if you're suspecting child abuse, or "report elderly abuse in New York", modifying it for type of abuse and your location. Here are the links to CPS numbers: in USA, in UK, in Canada, and in Australia.
What if I only heard of it online?
If you suspect abuse around your online friend (or enemy), it's a slightly different scenario because you can't contact authorities - sometimes you don't even know what country the person is in. What you need to do instead is contact the staff of the website where this communication took place. Facebook, Twitter, FortRefuge - whichever site you're conversing with this person at. They aren't allowed to disclose any private information to you, but they have enough data to allow authorities to find the person, and if it's something serious - they are legally obligated to report it. Just let them know. Keep in mind that not everything people say online is true though - it's still good to report, just might be not worth worrying about, especially since you'll never know the outcome.
Abuse can leave a lasting impact on victim's whole life - therapy for decades, problems with relationships and employment, addictions, depression, disability, suicide. It does hurt, and not just immediately - in the long run too. If my neighbor called CPS when I was seven - I wouldn't be here thirty years later, in a support group for people who have been abused and can't get their lives back on track as a result. Please do your part - for you it's just a phone call, but it might save the victim's life. Please call. Thank you for reading this.
~ Jonathan Swift
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