Family Law

Reporting Child Abuse: Who is Responsible?

The scene was horrific. The courtroom was silent as the coroner listed the injuries, one after another after another. It was impossible to believe that one person could have survived the blows to nearly every part of the body. Especially because it was all done to a ten-year-old girl.

Reporting Child Abuse

In 2009, a Pennsylvania town saw the horror of undetected child abuse which ended in death. A ten-year-old girl, whose father was in prison and mother suffering from terminal cancer in her home country of the Dominican Republic, was beaten for more than a year by her stepmother.

In one elementary school, the school nurse made two complaints of abuse. The state agency overseeing children's welfare sent the girl to a psychiatrist and therapist, and assigned her a caseworker.

The girl transferred to a new school, where another school nurse reported her concerns that the girl had a limp, and urged her family to take her to a doctor. The doctor performed an examination and found only that she was anemic. Shortly after, the child died from an infection from untreated broken ribs.

A lengthy listing of her injuries included a fracture at the top of the skull, a gash on the top of the head seven inches long by four inches wide, bone deformities on the hip and arm and a fractured shoulder blade. The girl's stepmother was charged with murder. The courts charged her father, but hanged himself in jail shortly after his arrest.

Why Wasn't This Caught?

Probably the main reason not to report neglect is that people don't want to get involved. However there are state laws requiring certain people, such as teachers, social workers, doctors and other medical personnel, to report abuse. Laws describe the actions they must take, whom they must notify and how to document their observations and reports.

If you suspect a child abuse or neglect, notify police or your local child welfare agency. Many agencies have toll-free hotlines to report abuse anonymously.

But why was this case not followed up on? That'll probably never be found out. Children often don't want to "tattle" on their parents or they'll be hurt more; some cultures or language barriers make it difficult, too.

Court Proceedings Terminate Parental Rights

Once abuse is discovered, the courts and child protective services (each state calls it something slightly different), takes over. A court-appointed guardian is set up and the child removed from the home.

States can also take away parents' rights if they've abused or neglected their children. Very strict procedures must be followed, however, and a lawyer is appointed for the parents if they can't afford to hire one.

Guardians can also be changed if a judge finds they aren't caring for the child. Either a new person or a local agency would be named as the child's guardian if the parents are still unable to care for their child. Unfortunately, there are more cases of neglect and abuse than guardians.

Other Persons Protected

Many states have laws protecting other vulnerable segments of society, including elderly and disabled. The elderly are more vulnerable to financial abuse, but there's also nursing home abuse that's reported.

It takes two seconds to make a call to perhaps save a life.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How can authorities tell if my child was hurt on accident or as the result of abuse?
  • If I lose my parental rights, can I get them back?
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