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What Happens When You Report Someone to Social Services?

Carrie understands that deciding whether to report someone to social services is difficult.

Gayle Weill, LCSW

The decision to report someone to social services is never taken lightly.

The decision to report someone to social services is never taken lightly.

Reporting Someone to Social Services

Every year, in the U.S., more than 4 million referrals are made to child protection agencies involving more than 4.3 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:

  • report
  • investigation
  • outcome
  • your identity
  • your liability

What Is Social Services?

Social services is an umbrella term that covers a range of federal, state, and local programs that oversee the welfare of individuals. This includes adult protective services, in-home support services, and more, in addition to child welfare services.

In most cases, when reporting suspected child abuse, you will call a hotline to make a report to the child welfare office in the county where the suspected abuse or neglect is occurring.

Filing a Social Services Report

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Investigation

  1. 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.
  2. 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. Afterward, the caseworker will visit with and interview the alleged abuser and the parents if they are not one and the same.
  3. 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 an Investigation

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 Believes 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.

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If Social Services Believes There Is Abuse or Neglect

If social services believe that abuse or neglect 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 long-term—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 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,
  • police officers,
  • child care workers,
  • 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.

Again, it's important to remember that laws vary by state, so you should always look into your state's laws if you have any questions or concerns about the process.

Here's the national hotline number to report any abuse. The site also links to a list of local numbers.

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.


Lolo on August 21, 2020:

You ALL need to get off your duff and call the department of Child welfare. Stop commenting your sob stories in some rando blog! Your not helping children this way....

Masie on August 12, 2020:

I'm worried about my neighbour who is with social services already she's got someone living with her who has been in trouble with the police for violence and she puts her little girls to bed and leaves them on there own while she is going over to other people's homes to get drunk she lives at 14 Bridlington Avenue salford M6 8BP and she doesn't care who hears her screaming and shouting to her kids and the neighbours.

A worried neighbor on August 01, 2020:

I need help. My neighbor is a major threat to her children what do O do

Margaret Stuart on July 30, 2020:

I have just heard a very disturbing comment from a dad saying he was going to lock his son in his boot who is 9 years of age and will drive off and leave him there. He use violent language to him and through this time it is very very disturbing. Im so so worried about those children

Ommi on July 04, 2020:

Okay I heard screaming and yelling in the apartment upstairs combined with some crazy loud noises sounding like smashing and crashing I also know that they have a little infant in their household and i'm generally concerned and not sure what to do should i call the police?

Indya Harrod on June 17, 2020:

Stop posting peoples names on these comments. None of you can spell properly at all! Mind your own business' unless you can see or hear physical abuse and neglect. Most of you sound like you are just trying to get back at someone. Just shut up.

Shayna Wlikinson on June 17, 2020:

Shayna Wlikinson

66 flat Patrick Connolly garden E1 London

Betty on June 04, 2020:

I no a woman who leaves her child at her sick mothers and drunken grandads why she is on drink and drugs all weekend the grandmother house is not fit for kids to sleep inn

Sue Bailey on June 02, 2020:

I know of a family that is living in squalour and their children often witness domestic violence through drink and drugs. The children are 3 and 7 and are often locked in their bedroom. The mother is an alcoholic and both parents are habitual drug users with a drug supplier going to the house frequently, i would like advice on how to protect the children

Anonimas on May 23, 2020:

Hy guys i need help i have experience that my bby mama abuse me haw can i get help fast i will like to explyn evrything to the person who is wiling to help & open a case my nmr is 0733125740 coll me anytime if u will help me pls thanks

Justine on May 22, 2020:

My dad has taken my sister away and won’t let me or mum speak to her he is so cruel and I cry every night he has taken her to Brighton she will be scared why won’t he let me or mum speak to her I want her back her name

Is India and she lives near Bonchurch Road please find her

bob on May 13, 2020:

I want to remain annonimus , there is a girl with twins ,they are about 3 or 4 she isn't selfdisstancing them from other children or adults, she takes them to her elderly parents house. she aslo lets them play out with no underware on , sometimes its cold out, you don't know who is looking at these boys.

Bigjer28 on May 07, 2020:

Is it ok for my ex to allow her BF to take a shower w my 8yr old son and show him how to clean his behind? I don’t feel this is ok also she thinks it’s ok to keep kids from me on my time and says it’s due to I am on drugs? I am not but I feel this is due to other issues like money and what her BF wants I don’t know what to do please advise

Mike on April 17, 2020:

The mother of my child is on. Drugs in care of my boy wot should i do

No one on April 09, 2020:

My kids and i live with my parents. They try to control every aspect of my life. When my children go to their dads for the weekend, that's my free time to date hang out, ect. You would think anyway. They will lock me out. They have even kicked me out, and when i tridd leaving they threaten to call police. Any tkme i talk bout moving or may have found a place of my own, they havr something negative to sayor manipulate my kids into making us stay. THEY HAVE EVEN CALLED SOCIAL SERVICES ON ME and tried telling them my boyfriend at the time and i aredrug dealers! Its rediclious. Social services didnt find anything to be true but i kno my parents will do thid again cuz its happened a few times. Im disabled so i can not work. My therapist told me my parents are my biggest triggers for relapse. ( i am a former addict,) ...i don't know what tp do. And these arejust afew of the things they do...

Someone please give me advice!

Melanie Mohamed on March 26, 2020:

My grandchild is being neglected. Please help me.

Jennifer Gibbon on March 09, 2020:

Does anyone have the social services number as i need to ring them tomorrow thanks

anonymous on February 22, 2020:

Most of life I didn't understand why my mother behave in such an angry and hateful way. Until a few days ago I came to realize that I have a verbally abusive mother. I don't know what to do at this point, she continuously insults, screams at me(sometimes at my face too), gets mad at me for everything, I can never make her happy. Every time when the weekend comes, it feels like hell with her because she constantly abuses me emotionally, and I cry so many times, but she don't seem to care. She tells me "why are you crying?" like she doesn't care about my emotions. And I feel so hopeless, and lonely because I can't find a way to end this pain my own has caused in me for many years. I try everything but nothing seems to work. I'm currently 16 and I feel so much pain in my chest. My dad also gets this emotionally abuse as well and we just don't know what to do or how to end this abusiveness.

Nancy wright on February 09, 2020:

Regards to Steven Taylor who has crookedly put my info on his account taken out credit cards in my name And applied to his account he's applied for housing not for long appt cups dr.hilbert he will be in jail before that using Alberta works check his credit bureau has lots of credit cards he's a scammer date of birth dec 3 1953

parent on February 03, 2020:

I haven;t meet my child due to rude and uncooperative behavior of her mother but i tried to provide in terms of money and health insurance. also couldn't afford to live in same are where my x reside with her husband. after not seen more than 7 years they have alleged physical abuse neglect. how could it possible if someone couldn't see his or her child many years held alleged for physical abuse? is the physical abuse is same as not visiting his or her child? what is legal consequences to talk with social worker without any lawyer involved? do we need lawyer to talk to them or its just a general discussion?

Nicola on January 29, 2020:

have some concerning fortage of a mother putting a knife to her kneck also meantion that she has already got social services involved

Nicola on January 29, 2020:

have some concerning fortage of a mother putting a knife to her kneck also meantion that she has already got social services involved

Anonymous on January 28, 2020:

If these are legitimate issues, why are you people posting names and addresses in the comments. If abuse or danger to a child is real, make the call and make the report. Otherwise, stop abusing this system that already has issues. This overpowered corrupt system should be targeting and dealing with real issues of abuse and danger instead of situations like these posted in the comments that sound like efforts to get back at someone.

unknown on January 27, 2020:

My necice's has been emotionally and fiscally abused. has been dealing with it for 7 years by there own father. He calls them names the worst names and hits them most of the time never lets them do anything. cps and been in there live over and over not doing anything for 7 years, hes a drug head and only cares about drugs his girlfriend his Courtney miller a mom of 8 kids wit different dads and the girls dad is terry woodruff please help them. 308 eastern ave sunman Indiana Cps only makes things worse by telling him everytime they talk to them there on his side please help if u can.

helen sobiesh on January 18, 2020:

you ruined me by my nieces lies that I am a abuser because I would not pay for my sisters funeral youfucjers

La on November 10, 2019:

All you idiots know you can’t report abuse in the comments! Y’all are throwing names and address out like it’s candy. What if a weirdo comes threw and picks up a kid how would y’all feel then.

FC on October 21, 2019:

I’m sure some people get into this business for the right reasons. However, there are bad apples in social services who misuse they’re powers dangerously stripping, ripping destroying families and they’re constitutional rights.This type abuse of power ought have accountabilities but it doesn’t! Way to much power!

helen sobiesh on October 04, 2019:

a lie ruined just loved spying on me huh!!!!! f U

Tara on October 03, 2019:

Michael french onion s mentally emotionally and refuses to let me have food I'm 43 and I'm bein refused food

L on September 25, 2019:

Going back about 8 years ago I reported my girlfriend (anonymously) to social services, for not looking after her son properly (13 at the time). They worked pretty quickly to be honest after a few visits they applied for a care order and took him into foster care

AA on September 08, 2019:

Just so everyone is well-informed and not naive, if a parent makes even a minor mistake where no one was injured (in my husband's case, leaving our child alone for a few minutes (more than 5, less than 25)- they can twist anything into "negligent lack of supervision"), social services enters your name into a child abuse registry. That's correct, people who refuse to be helicopter parents are added without a second thought to the same registry as parents who regularly beat their children. Even if the decision is appealed (my husband's was expunged within 3 months), there are lifelong consequences such as the parents never being allowed to adopt (we were in the process of adopting and had already paid $13000- our agency dropped us even though the finding was expunged) or foster children or to work in any kind of school setting. My husband and I are both civil servants and have never been in any sort of trouble at all. We love our daughter dearly and have never done anything the least bit abusive. Just being touched by social services imparts a social stigma and creates collateral punishments for the family regardless of the validity or severity of the charge. It was incredibly traumatic to have them digging around in our cabinets and refrigerator -it felt like a psychological rape (Side note, the charge had nothing to do with our home). So please think twice about calling social services. Make sure a child is actually in danger and you are not just being sanctimonious about parents making a different decision than you would. And if you feel like you could refer the family to any resources or provide education yourself rather than calling social services, that would be the truly neighborly thing to do. Once you make the call, a family's life is ruined. Signed, a mandatory reporter who has now been investigated and will never call again unless the abuse is blatant.

NIcola hall on September 03, 2019:

There is a woman who lives in 2 pasture road catford .she hads a little girl shd is 4 years old she be 5 .on sunday 8 sept ...she dies Not not go to school ..and the Mum smokes weed to

Raelea Phillips on August 22, 2019:

I called the abuse hotline February 2019 after many years of watching and listening to my sister and her husband emotionally, psychologically, and physically abuse their children. Once the investigation was underway my sister asked me if I knew anything about the “allegation of abuse” and since i do not lie i said yes. Now, the investigation is closed and both parents have been cleared. They are now separated but still living together. Both parents are total narcissists; obsessing over their new relationships and putting their new flings before their own children. I know the emotional and psychological abuse is continuing. And i am the one being punished by not getting to see my niece and nephew alone. I have to be supervised by one of the parents! Yes, i am being punished but worse yet is this hurts those children! I was my niece’s nanny her first 2 years of life. We are very close. I love my niece and nephew more than anyone in the world and they are still suffering in a toxic, codependent, narcissistic, OCD environment. My sister’s husband lacks empathy completely. My sister and i both grew up with emotionally abusive parents. She sees a therapist as does her husband but like typical narcissists they lie to their therapists. Both are needy and addicted to attention and when they do not get the enabling and attention they seek they lash out. I am at a loss. I love my niece and nephew so much but need to remove these toxic people from my life including my parents who have been idly standing by and turning a blind eye to their own daughter’s behavior! My family are all sick and i do not know what to do. Lastly, my sister started to tell me that she actually SAW the written version of my report to the abuse hotline! I do not know if this is a fishing expedition or if she did see something that is supposed to he confidential! What do i do?

Truth on August 13, 2019:

This is what happens when ypu report child neglect. Your name doesnt remain a secret. The child doesnt get help infact the child gets worse treatment. Social just observe and do not help tge kiddy. In mean time your life gets threated and destroyed all for nothing because these bad evil infact parents carry on being bad parents. No one helps these neglected and battered kids noone

Anonymous on August 05, 2019:

My sister is mentally ill and neglects her 2 kid and prefers to take care of her boyfriend in jail than her kids and if anyone tells her anything about her and her kids she ends up finding a way to hurt everyone like almost killing herself with her kids , like a car crash, she tends to blackmail everyone if she doesn't get her way.please help

Shayna Shafer on July 09, 2019:

This woman has two children she sleeps all day and doesn't pay attention to them at all when she wakes up and she's tired of them she just sends them across the street to her grandparents house and nobody's watching his three-year-old cross the road by himself happens almost on a daily basis she lets her baby just cry and cry and cry because she's so knocked out on medication

Anon on June 30, 2019:

10 hawthorn road hoddesdon.

Multiple accounts of neglect . Mother and carer out all hours enjoying herself. Then when social come round she gives a sob story of her hard life . When realky she leaves her kids else where and is down the pub like o sheas the albert and the marriot . Kt08bgz yeaa shes on benfits but shes got more cash than the normal working family. Shes revolting and im disgusted that shws getting away with it.

Unknown on June 16, 2019:

What should i do if i know this lady that leaves her kids with everyone days at a time and that she is on methamphetamine.

Naomi on June 08, 2019:

Theres 6 kids living in 2 bedroom apartment.

The kids are violent. Constant animal abuse.

They stay out at all hours unsupervised.

Roam with older aged kids.

Public destruction