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Child Abuse – Part I

Tired Boy Studying In Bedroom

“Hello?”

“Mrs. Jones?”

“Yes. Who’s this?”

“Hello, my name is Ms. Dean.  I’m a social worker with Child Protective Services, and I’m calling to let you know that our office has received a complaint about Bobby.  Your son has extensive bruising around his left arm.  I don’t want to get into any specifics with your case at this time, but we would like to set up a meeting as soon as possible to discuss these injuries.”  

“What?!  Wait, wait, wait.  Excuse me, Ms. Dean, but this is all a complete misunderstanding.  We love our son, and we’d never hurt him!  Is this coming from the school?  I just told them that my husband, Jack, was laid off from work last month.  I can’t believe they jumped to this conclusion!” 

“Mrs. Jones, we can talk about all these issues when we meet.  I will tell you Bobby acted very suspiciously when questioned.  He would only say he was bad and that was why his arm got hurt.  Consequently, the school had an obligation to contact our office.  I was also informed that your family’s been experiencing some financial hardship since your husband lost his job.  I only tell you this because if we can’t meet tonight, it might be safer for everyone if your husband left the house until these matters are resolved.”

“Ma’am, Jack would never hurt Bobby.  I know this looks suspicious especially after that conversation with the school, but it’s not.  Please believe me!  Bobby almost fell down the steps of our front porch, and Jack grabbed him to keep him from falling.  I promise.  Please don’t do this!  We’ve been through so much lately, and this would devastate my husband!”

“Mrs. Jones, I would like to believe you, but Bobby was acting in a concerning manner…”

“Well, that’s because he was bad.  I mean he disobeyed.  He knew Jack was fixing the steps, but he took off running.  He wasn’t paying attention, and Jack grabbed him to stop him.  I’m just making it sound worse!  Please believe me!”

“I’m sorry, but my hands are tied.  If what you’re saying checks out, I’m sure everything will be fine.  Now, let’s set up this appointment, Mrs. Jones.”

What was she going to do?
Would they take Bobby away?
Would Jack be arrested?
How much more could her struggling family take?

Surprisingly, this fictional story may represent many families caught in the system.  Unfortunately, regular people don’t always know what they’re facing and how to navigate those treacherous waters.  Competent legal advice can help provide needed information.  Counselors are retained to represent families’ best interests and to protect their parental rights.

Mrs. Jones’ story is a common one in Virginia.  According to the Department of Social Services, there were 113,091 cases of child abuse reported in Virginia last year alone.  Of those cases, 68,210 were initially determined to be valid complaints and were reviewed as a family assessment or investigated for child abuse or neglect by CPS.  Just as in Mrs. Jones’ case, the most common reporter (16,160 of a total of 75,685 reporters) of child abuse was a mandatory reporter at a child’s school.  A mandatory reporter is a person who has a legal obligation to report child abuse when discovered, such as a teacher, physician, counselor or police officer.  As the name implies, once a mandatory reporter discovers evidence of suspected child abuse they must notify CPS immediately.  Once this report has been received by CPS, an intake worker determines if the report is valid.  In Mrs. Jones’ case, the bruising and lack of explanation by the child would be enough to have CPS initially determine that the report is valid.  At that point, CPS would assign a worker who would begin an investigation of child abuse, or in less serious cases, a family assessment.

When a CPS worker begins an investigation, they must interview the allegedly abused child, the alleged abuser, any siblings, spouse or any other family members who may have information about the alleged abuse.  Mrs. Dean, the worker in this case, is attempting to set up these exact interviews.  But that is not all that happened here.  Mrs. Jones, understandably upset, tried to convince the CPS worker that Bobby had not been abused.  Mrs. Jones’ attempt to explain is reasonable but potentially damaging to her family.  In any event, nothing that Mrs. Jones says at this point is going to end the investigation.  Once an investigation begins, it will not end until the CPS worker has completed their required interviews.

Here, I would advise that Mrs. Jones thank the CPS worker for contacting her and let her know she will be happy to speak to her about this incident, but first, she would like to contact her attorney.  What Mrs. Jones may not understand is that anything she says to the CPS worker may be used against her or her husband at a later date.  While Mrs. Jones is trying to help her family, a simple statement may cause unintended consequences.

When Mrs. Jones tells the CPS worker Bobby was “bad”, this could potentially be viewed as blaming Bobby for what the CPS worker views as possible child abuse.  Is Mrs. Jones taking her husband’s side over that of her child?  If there was abuse will she be able to protect her child?  Is she, perhaps, part of the problem?  While one little word might not cause all of these thoughts, several statements over the course of an investigation can cause significant damage.  Consultation with a lawyer can help prevent these potential disasters.

Of course, the CPS worker here is trying to determine if Bobby has been the victim of child abuse.  Child abuse is defined as physical or mental injury to a child by other than accidental means.  Here, the bruising on Bobby’s arm would certainly qualify as a “physical injury” under Virginia law.  But was the injury caused intentionally?  That will ultimately be the question investigated.  We certainly hope the CPS worker will view the facts fairly and accept the family’s explanation of the accidental injury.  But, should Mrs. Jones rely on a woman she has never met?  What, really, is at stake here?

Depending on what the investigation uncovers, CPS may seek a protective order that could limit Mr. Jones’ contact with his child, require his contact be supervised or even require him to leave the home.  If CPS determines the child is not safe in the home, for instance, if they determine that Mrs. Jones cannot protect the child or is harming him, they may take the child from the home and place him in foster care.  These are extreme examples of what could happen in this case, but given what is at stake, Mrs. Jones should be extremely careful as she proceeds with CPS.  In addition, Mrs. Jones’ husband could potentially face criminal charges for assault or child abuse, which could potentially result in jail time.

An attorney could advise Mrs. Jones about the CPS process so that she is not moving forward blindly during this investigation.  If Mrs. Jones knows what her rights and responsibilities are, she can better protect her family from potentially harmful consequences.  An attorney can also assist and advise the family during any interview with CPS to prevent damaging misunderstandings.  When I represent a family undergoing a CPS investigation, I take over all communication and coordination with CPS so that contact between CPS and the family doesn’t cause any problems or issues with the case.  I would handle the legal process so that Mrs. Jones can focus on protecting and helping her family.

For more information about situations dealing with Child Protective Services, please contact us.

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