How to help a child who may be experiencing abuse or neglect
As a social worker, I have become the “go to” person for many friends and family members. They will often present scenarios to me, ranging from how to help a loved one who may be a victim of domestic violence to what to do about the homeless family you see sleeping in their car to how to help a child who may be a victim of abuse or neglect. Some of these scenarios require a deeper analysis into the many factors at play, and there may not always be a straightforward answer to the problem. However, any time there is concern that a child may be experiencing abuse or neglect, there are specific steps that anyone can take to help provide for the wellbeing of that child.
In the state of Florida, everyone is a mandated reporter. What that means is that is that anyone who has knowledge or “reasonable cause to suspect” that a child is experiencing abuse or neglect by someone in a caretaker role (including a parent, legal guardian, or any other person who is designated as someone to care for that child) is required to report it to the authorities. There are certain professions such as medical providers, mental health providers, social workers, child care workers, law enforcement officers and judges who cannot remain anonymous when making an abuse report. However, the “average” person can remain anonymous when making a report.
If you have concerns that a child is being abused or neglected, don’t hesitate—make a call to 1-800-96-ABUSE (22873) and a hotline counselor will gather information from you. For additional information about how to make a report, please visit the Department of Children and Families (DCF) website.
There are some important things to know when making a child abuse report:
- Reporter information is confidential. While DCF and certain child welfare organizations will have access to reporter information, it is against the law to release this information. As someone working in the field of child welfare, it is recommended to leave your information in case a DCF worker would need to contact you for additional details.
- Remember to stay calm. Learning that a child may be a victim of abuse or neglect is an emotional, and sometimes overwhelming, thing. It is normal to want to intervene or help that child and/or their family, but knowing your role is also important. There may be times when your involvement could potentially make things worse for a child, so making a report and allowing the investigation process to begin as you step back is the best thing you can do.
- Provide as many details as possible. Names, ages, dates of birth, addresses, physical descriptions are all important things to provide. Be as specific as possible about the allegations. Are you concerned because a child has unexplained injuries? Note where the injuries are. Is there worry because you often see children in your neighborhood near a dangerous intersection? Note how many children and their approximate ages and descriptions as well as addresses or landmarks. No detail is unimportant when calling the abuse hotline.
- It is not your job to investigate the abuse but rather report. It can be scary making a child abuse report when you are unsure of the specifics, but remember, the Florida statute only says “reasonable cause.” It may turn out that the child is displaying concerning symptoms due to some other factor, but the lingering “what if?” could remain in your head if you don’t choose to report a concern. DCF will conduct an investigation to include interviewing the alleged child victim and other household members to assess the allegations.
- Know that your concern may help protect a child and potentially save their life. How many times have you heard about a story involving family violence, be it child or intimate partner abuse, and you hear a bystander (a neighbor, family member, or friend) say “I didn’t want to get involved”? It can be a difficult thing to “get involved” but making that call can be the beginning of making a world of difference for that child. Often times, children are fearful of self-reporting abuse and neglect for fear of what the outcome can be. Maybe they have been threatened by their abusive caretaker, or maybe they have been advised that no one will believe them. It is even possible that children may not disclose to a DCF worker. But knowing that your call is erring on the side of caution and doing the best thing for that child is to report it.