What Happens When You Report Someone to Social Services?
Reporting Someone to Social Services
Every year more than 3.6 million referrals are made to child protection agencies involving more than 6.6 million children (a referral can include multiple children). And less than half of child abuse cases will never be reported because neighbors, friends, and relatives are often too nervous or afraid to contact social services and stop the abuse. Some worry they will break the family apart, especially if they are wrong, while others fear retaliation from the abuser.
The reality is just the opposite:
- Reporting someone to social services is nothing to fear. The individual you report will never know that you are the one who made the call.
- Further, social services will not take any action against the person you report if they find no evidence of abuse or neglect. In fact, the report and the ensuing investigation will never become a part of the individual’s record.
- Likewise, social services will never remove a child from the home if your suspicions were incorrect.
On the other hand, if you are correct about the abuse, you could help save a child’s life. So, don't fear. In this article, learn about what happens when it comes to reporting someone to social services, which includes the:
- your identity
- your liability
This article is meant to give you a detailed look at what happens after you report someone to social services. However, please remember that laws vary state to state, so it's important to look into your state's laws.
Filing a Social Services Report
- Connecting with a dispatcher: When you first contact social services, you will be connected with a dispatcher, who is only trained in accepting reports. They will not be able to investigate the matter themselves nor provide you with any specific information. However, the dispatcher can tell you how the investigation will be conducted, what they usually do next, and what else you can do to help. However, they cannot share private information about the matter with you.
- Gathering contact information: The dispatcher will ask you for your name, your telephone number, and your location. If you would rather make an anonymous report, you can state as such or you can provide an alias or false name. However, regardless of the name you provide, you should provide a working telephone number—this will allow social services to contact you again if they need any additional information to help them investigate your report. If you absolutely cannot give your telephone number, then offer an e-mail address instead.
- Information about the abuse in question: After gathering your contact information, the dispatcher will then ask you about the abuse you want to report. They will ask you for the victim’s name, age, date of birth, and physical address. If you know where the victim goes to school or works, give this information as well. The dispatcher will then ask for the abuser’s name, age, address, place of work, and a physical description. If the parents are not the abusers, the dispatcher will also ask for the parents’ information.
Provide as much information as you can, even if you think what you know is irrelevant. The more information you offer, the better chance social services has to stop the abuser. Conversely, if you do not know much about the situation, then provide what little information you have. Social services will do their best to fill in the rest.
The Social Services Investigation
- Assigning a caseworker: After receiving your report, a caseworker will be assigned to investigate your suspicions. Most agencies investigate reports of child abuse and neglect within 24 to 72 hours (depending on state laws). However, this may vary depending on when you made the report, the severity of the abuse, and the individual agency’s caseload.
- The caseworker's investigation: The caseworker will visit the victim’s home first, and if possible, speak with the victim alone. The caseworker may also conduct a walk-through of the victim’s residence to ensure the child is receiving the proper care. Afterwards, the caseworker will visit with and interview the alleged abuser and the parents if they are not one in the same.
- Imminent danger will be determined. If the caseworker believes the victim is in imminent danger and the victim is living with the abuser, the caseworker may remove the victim from the residence immediately. If the victim is a minor child, the child may be temporarily placed with other relatives or put into foster care until the investigation concludes. If no imminent danger is apparent, the caseworker will not do anything at that time.
The Outcome of a Social Services Investigation
- A determination by the agency: After completing the initial investigation, the caseworker will discuss their findings with their superior, and the two will work together to decide if abuse is apparent and what should happen next. The caseworker may return for another, more thorough investigation if social services determine this is necessary.
- If social services believe there is no abuse: If social services determine that no abuse took place, nothing will happen to the family. The caseworker may visit once more for a quick interview, or they may not visit again at all. The family will then receive a letter clearing them from any wrongdoing, and social services will officially close the matter. The report and ensuing investigation will not become a part of the alleged abuser’s criminal record.
- If social services believe there is abuse: If social services believe that abuse did occur, then the agency will take steps to correct the situation.
- In less severe cases, the caseworker may offer counseling, training, and other family support services to the abuser.
- In more severe cases, the victim may be removed on a more longterm—but still temporary—basis until the abuser can demonstrate that they are fit to regain custody or guardianship again. Remember that the goal for social services is to keep families together, but they have a legal responsibility to protect children from neglect and abuse.
- In the most critical cases, the abuser may be arrested and charged for the abuse, and the victim may be permanently removed from the abuser’s care. If this happens, the victim may be placed in long-term foster care, put under the guardianship of another relative, or placed for adoption.
Your Identity During a Social Services Investigation
- Your identity will remain protected. No one other than social services will ever know you are the one who made the report. The dispatcher and the caseworker are the only ones who will likely know your name and will not release it to the abuser, the victim, or anyone else.
- Your report will also be protected. Social services also won’t divulge the contents of your report if they aren't required to by law (again, in rare circumstances, this will happen), so there is little possibility that anyone will be able to trace the report back to you. The only way anyone other than social services will know you made the report is if you tell them yourself.
Your Liability If You Make a Social Services Report
- No liability if made in good faith: Regardless of the outcome, all 50 states exempt individuals who report abuse from any civil or criminal liability, even if your suspicions prove wrong, provided you made the report in good faith. This means that you truly believed that there was ongoing abuse, or you truly suspected that abuse might have occurred. You will never face criminal prosecution for reporting someone to social services because you were mistaken.
- Liability possible if you had a malicious intent: However, if you knowingly make a false report to social services, particularly if you did so to harass or intimidate the accused, you could be charged with a crime. If you make numerous false reports, social services can release your name to the person you report and that person can file a civil lawsuit against you for compensation. The key point here is that you knew you were making a false report and you did so for a malicious reason.
Does Social Services Investigate Every Case?
Once a report is made, social services will decide whether or not to follow up on it. This is why it's extremely important to be as detailed as possible when filing a report. If a report is "screened out," no further investigation will take place. Here are the possible reasons why a report may be screened out:
- There's not enough information to warrant an investigation.
- Social services or the police believe the information is false or inaccurate
- The information provided doesn't meet the definition of child abuse or neglect.
As an example, the Los Angeles child abuse hotline alone averages one call every 2.4 minutes and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 2017, between 30 and 35 percent of hotline calls of abuse were “screened in” or investigated.
When Should You Report Someone to Social Services?
If you witness a child in immediate danger or believe they are at risk of serious harm, call the police, who will be able to respond much quicker than social services.
You should call social services anytime you suspect abuse or neglect, even if you aren't completely sure. It's easy to second guess yourself and worry that your suspicions are wrong. However, remember that it's the agency's job to determine if a report should be investigated, not yours.
"An obvious example would be a child who is being physically abused by a violent caretaker. A not so obvious example could include a child with loving parents, but [who is] suffering from malnutrition or other health problems simply because the parents do not know anything about nutrition or the basics of healthcare," says Matt Pinsker, an attorney who has worked with social services on multiple cases.
Pinsker also says that people are sometimes hesitant to call because they are worried about breaking up a family or have had a bad run-in with the agency in the past.
Here are the federal guidelines for defining abuse and neglect according to Do Right by Kids:
- Physical abuse: "Physical abuse occurs when a parent (or person legally responsible) commits a physical act (i.e. punching, beating, shaking, throwing, kicking, biting, burning) which causes serious physical injury to a child. Although the injury is not an accident, the parent or caretaker may not have intended to hurt the child."
- Neglect: "Neglect occurs when a parent (or person legally responsible) fails to provide a minimum level of care by doing something that inflicts harm, allows harm to be inflicted, or creates an imminent danger of harm. The harm, however, does not result in the kind of serious physical injury that is defined as physical abuse."
However, it's worth mentioning that the guidelines for abuse can vary by state and aren't necessarily agreed upon by everyone. If you truly believe a child is being abused or neglected, it's better to err on the side of caution and call in the report.
What Is a Mandated Reporter?
Anyone can report someone to child services, but a mandated reporter is someone who, because of their profession, is required by law to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the relevant authorities.
Who is classified as a mandated reporter varies from state to state, but it usually includes social workers, teachers, health care workers, and mental health professionals. However, some states legally require all citizens to report abuse or neglect.
If you are a mandated reporter who has reasonable suspicions that a child is being abused or neglected, it's important that you call social services.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.