Criminal Defense Lawyer West ChesterA December 2017 article published by Bucks County Courier Times discusses a fifth child in Bucks County under age 16 to die this year under suspicious circumstances. At the Skinner Law Firm, we find this incredibly alarming; no child should die under suspicious circumstances!

Pennsylvania’s child protection laws include mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Our legislators have chosen respected members of the community to be designated mandatory reporters (see the full list here). These individuals are held to a higher standard and are charged as being guardians for our most cherished and vulnerable citizens—children. The following is a partial list of adults who are required by law to report suspected child abuse:

  • Anyone licensed or certified to practice in a health-related field under the jurisdiction of the Department of State
  • A medical examiner, coroner, or funeral director
  • Employees of health care facilities or providers licensed by the Department of Health who are engaged in the admission, examination, care, or treatment of individuals
  • School employees
  • Employees of a child care service who have direct contact with children in the course of employment
  • Members of the clergy

This is an extensive list; fortunately, we are empowering a virtual army to protect our children. In addition, parent volunteers in schools and others who come into close contact with children may be required to obtain child abuse clearances from the state police. If the volunteer has not been a Pennsylvania resident for at least 10 years, he or she must be cleared by the FBI.

Usually, there are physical and behavioral warning signs evident in children who are suffering abuse. By virtue of their educational backgrounds and professions, the mandated reporters are well qualified to recognize the common signs of abuse and neglect. As a community resource, the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center offers a no-cost online course on recognizing and reporting abuse cases.

Coercion, Intimidation, and CYS Investigations

The Office of Children Youth and Families (CYF), often called child protective services (CPS), takes its responsibilities very seriously. CYS’s singular purpose is to protect those who cannot protect themselves—to ensure that no more children die from suspicious causes. If there is even a small suggestion of abuse or neglect, CYS requires an investigation.

The key role of the child protective services (CYS) investigator is to determine if a child is at risk of harm. If the findings unequivocally indicate a high risk of danger, the child may be removed from the home, at least on a temporary, emergency basis.

When that determination is not absolutely certain, and the evidence is not crystal clear, the investigator may still believe that the child should be removed from the home. With all good intentions, and with the best interests of the child in the forefront, the caseworker may try to unduly influence, encourage, or persuade the caregiver to take certain actions for the child’s betterment.

Persuasion can feel like coercion during an investigation. Toward this end, it is wise for parents or caregivers to have an attorney present during questioning.

How the Investigation Process Works

Once a case is open, the caseworker may remove the suspected abuser from the home to maintain the integrity of the investigation. CYS usually follows specific guidelines during an abuse investigation. These steps include:

  • An interview with the child
  • An examination of the child, performed by a physician, to find signs of trauma or abuse
  • An interview with a parent of the child who is not suspected of abuse
  • Questioning the person accused of the abuse
  • An objective assessment of the risk to the child

These steps each serve a specific purpose:

  • The child interview should substantiate the alleged abuse if the child can give a description of what is happening
  • The medical exam can provide definitive evidence
  • Interviewing the non-suspect parent can lead to valuable information
  • The person accused of the abuse will also be interviewed directly
  • CYS will perform a risk assessment.

If CYS determines the child faces a high degree of risk, CYS may remove the child from the home and place him or her into state care.

An Investigation Should Begin Immediately

During the initial visit, CYS personnel will determine if the child is safe and if all of his or her immediate needs are being met. In an emergency situation, CYS personnel or local law enforcement may remove the child from the home immediately. If the child is not in imminent danger yet there are signs of abuse or neglect, CYS may go to court to obtain an order to remove the child from the home as soon as possible.

Whether or not the child is quickly removed from the home, CYS personnel will conduct a thorough investigation. This involves home visits as well as interviews with parents, family members, teachers, daycare workers, and any other individuals who may be able to substantiate abusive behavior and offer details. These interviews may take place at a person’s home or office, at a CYS location, or at a local police station.

If a court determines that CYS’s allegations of abuse or neglect are valid, families will likely have to deal with CYS and further investigations for at least one year.

Parents Have Rights

Nobody will dispute the fact that all children have an absolute right to be safe, but when a decision is made to remove children from the family home, parents also have rights:

  • Parents have a right to request kinship care, in lieu of foster care, for their children. During stressful times, the best place for the children is with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, cousin, or close friend’s home.
  • Parents have a right to appeal the decision to remove the child, as well as the final decision regarding any termination of parental rights.
  • Parents have a right to remain in contact with their children.
  • Parents have a right to fight for the restoration of their family.

Do not become tangled up in Pennsylvania’s CYS’s maze of restrictions and requirements without quality, experienced legal representation. Call the Skinner Law Firm at (610) 436-1410, or contact us online, for the help you need to put your family back together.

Article Author

Michael J. Skinner, the founder of Skinner Law Firm LLC, is a former prosecutor with the Chester County District Attorney’s Office.

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