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Suspecting child abuse is one of the most painful things an adult can endure. You fear the stakes are high if you call it in, regardless of whether or not you are correct. However, public policy has changed to encourage reporting, and if you truly suspect your neighbors are abusing their children, here is some information that might help in making that difficult call.
In the past year, the Perris, California community has come under scrutiny after it was discovered the parents of the Turpin family in that town were beating and torturing their 13 children right under the noses of their neighbors in what looks to be a very Brady Bunch style neighborhood, with homes built within mere feet of one another. Child Protective Services mistook many of the adult children as youths due to their malnourishment. The children, homeschooled, were pale and appeared sickly when seen in the light of day. The home smelled foul, even from the outside. It was a four bedroom house and there were 13 children. Neighbors thought the family was "odd", but no one called the Child Protective Services. But perhaps they should have.
Though laws differ by state regarding child welfare, almost every state's child welfare agency will say same the same thing. Call the child abuse hotline if you reasonably believe that a child is being abused, neglected, exploited, or abandoned. Call the police if you think a child is in immediate danger. It's better to report than to run the risk of a child being harmed, according to Cynthia Weiss, the communications director for Arizona's child welfare agency. And don't assume someone else has called.
Most people can spot abuse more easily than neglect. What does neglect look like? Every state legally defines it a bit differently. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, neglect is "any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation." Neglect can be more difficult to determine, since it requires the reporter to forecast whether or not harm will come to the child. While no one should ever criminalize poverty, neglect is a crime. If you see a neglected child, you should contact your local Child Protective Services.
If you are still on the fence, consider this. Many states allow for anonymous calls to Child Protective Services. If you are concerned about "getting involved" or other uncomfortable consequences, check to see if you can make an anonymous reporting. Also note, if you are a mandatory reporter, you are required by law to report child abuse, even if you only suspect it. Mandatory reporters are usually workers in the field of health, safety, welfare, and education. To know if you are a mandatory reporter, check with your state's laws. If you see something, and are not a mandatory reporter, strongly consider being a voluntary reporter. If you don't report anything, you could be charged with a misdemeanor. As long as you are reporting in good faith, you will be immune from liability, even if you're wrong.
If you still have questions, contact a local family law attorney. An experienced lawyer call listen to your facts and experiences, and offer you advice on what to do, and perhaps more importantly, what you may legally be required to do.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.