Written by Julie Higginbotham, Senior Case Coordinator, Mecklenburg County CDSA
Happy New Year to all of our Table Talk Wednesday fans! Luckily for us, our first event of the year came just in time – 2 more days and Icemaggeddon 2016 was upon us! We had great attendance for our second discussion about working with the Department of Social Services, particularly Child Protective Services. Two years ago, we talked about DSS – Who Are They, and What Do We Do With Them? This time around, we wanted to back up a bit and talk about what happens when we have to make the call to DSS because we suspect abuse or neglect in a family’s home. Guiding us this time around were Jennifer Graham, Permanency Planning Supervisor with DSS, and Shirley Cruzado, Sr. Case Coordinator with the CDSA. These two have a lot of experience in this area, and we were glad to have them on hand to help us navigate this topic. Before getting into the themes of the event, here are a few links we wanted to make sure folks had available related to mandated reporting.
• In North Carolina, the mandated reporting laws state that everyone is a mandated reporter, regardless of your job title or relationship to the child and family. For more information, visit the North Carolina statute on mandated reporting (N.C.G.S. § 7B-301). Another important thing to note is that, as long as you are acting in good faith and have a reasonable suspicion, you cannot be held liable for making that call (N.C.G.S. §7B-309).
• Reporting Abuse and Neglect in North Carolina, written by Katheryn Hooker (2013), is another great resource that looks at various aspects of the law and provides additional clarification. Chapter 7, “Deciding to Report,” is a particularly helpful chapter because it goes into more of the specifics of making the decision to call in a report.
• For those of you following EI Excellence outside of North Carolina, here is a link that covers mandated reporting regulations in each state.
• Making a report for abuse and neglect does not require a consent to release information from the family, so you don’t have to worry about breeching confidentiality when making a good-faith report.
So, what does all of that look like when we’re out in the field serving families? Good question…here are some important points we considered as a group.
• Whoever suspects it, reports it. This came up fairly early in the conversation, and it can seem like a fuzzy line sometimes. While it’s important for IFSP teams to be talking to each other and discussing concerns like these, we have to make sure that the person who witnessed, suspects, or has the most knowledge of the potential abuse or neglect is the one making that call because that’s the person with the most information. For example, if a provider has a suspicion about abuse or neglect, it’s not enough to report it to the service coordinator, or even a supervisor. That doesn’t mean that the team or supervisor won’t be part of that process or that other team members won’t be involved in the conversation. That’s a great thing about IFSP teams – we’re there to support each other as much as we are to support the family. Taking that a step further, what if everyone on the team isn’t in agreement? That’s ok, too – it’s not the team’s responsibility to come to a consensus to report, it’s the individual with the reasonable suspicion. It’s DSS’s job to then decide whether to move forward.
• How do we know whether something is reportable? This is probably one of the biggest struggles for us because there are so many things to consider, and abuse and neglect isn’t always obvious. Jennifer shared that those decisions aren’t always easy for DSS either. When calls come in, they will be “screened in” or “screened out,” meaning they will or will not move on to an investigation. They need to know how the situation/behaviors are impacting the child in any scenario, so something that might not be best for the child might not be enough to warrant an investigation from DSS. When you call, DSS will review all of the information they need from you, including looking at the child’s age, developmental and medical status, and a variety of other factors with each report. You’re a mandated reporter, so your responsibility is to report your concerns, and they’ll make their decision from there. However, the clarification around the process after the call was helpful for the group to hear.
• What about telling the family that a report will be/has been made? This one seems easy to say out loud, but may be harder to do in real life. Parents can react in a variety of ways, and while this is a professional judgment call, the group felt like it almost always works out best to go ahead and say things out loud with families. One person said that, in the moment, she may point out what she sees and invite the family to talk about it with her. It can be a great opportunity to build rapport with families when they can see that we want to help change a potentially dangerous behavior. It’s also an opportunity to talk about our responsibility as mandated reporters and what that really means. The group noted that DSS is a support, even if families might not see it that way, and DSS’ goal is not to take children away from their families. In fact, families might be surprised by how much help they can get from DSS, and DSS knows how to support families when there are these kinds of concerns.
• But really, how do parents react? Well, some might be angry, others might be sad, and others might be relieved. There also may be some shame associated with being reported for abuse and neglect, or even fear if someone talks about issues going on in the home. We may be asked to leave, or we may be able to diffuse the initial emotional response to help families figure out how they want to move forward. One person talked about having an extended family member disclose information about some concerns when it was safe to do so, and another said that a family may have a hard time getting help and recognizing that things had gotten out of control. One attendee asked about domestic violence situations – perhaps a mother appears to have been hurt, but the child or children look unharmed. Jennifer clarified that any domestic violence situations are reportable when children are in the home, even if they are reportedly upstairs asleep, because part of the neglect statute includes the parents’ ability to protect the children in the home. An interesting perspective was in the opportunity to empower parents and caregivers to make that call themselves when they are concerned about abuse and neglect – we can support them through that process and show them that they can help themselves when they feel like they need it.
• What about safety? We absolutely need to keep everyone safe when making the call to report abuse and neglect, and that includes the family, the child, and ourselves. Having safety concerns was the main reason given if we’re not going to tell a family that we are or may be making the call to DSS. Locally, one of the questions DSS will ask when a report is made is whether or not the person reporting has talked to the family about his or her concerns. If you have safety concerns, know that you can make a call anonymously, but that doesn’t mean that the details of the report won’t link it back to you. DSS involvement is a sensitive subject for families, and we want to be sure to respect their privacy. However, there may be times it is necessary to share information with IFSP team members about reports of abuse and neglect or the family safety plan with youth and family services as it relates to providing ongoing EI services. Be sure, though, that you are only sharing pertinent information and maintaining confidentiality. That being said, involving your supervisor would probably be a good choice as well.
• What if nothing happens after we make the call? DSS has the tough job of figuring out how to move forward with each abuse and neglect report that is made, and they may or may not decide to move forward with an investigation. Even if they do investigate, the allegations may or may not be substantiated. One attendee talked about a situation in which more than one report had been made for a family, and while they were not screened in for investigation, having the documented history of concerns led to an investigation when another agency made their report. Locally, if you make a report, you can ask to be notified of DSS’ decision.
As you can see, there is a lot to think about when there are questions about possible abuse or neglect, and it’s not an easy call to make when you have to move forward. While we don’t like to do it, we know that we want what’s best for children and families. The bottom line in all of this is that, if you are concerned, you have to make that call. You don’t know what will happen when you leave that home at the end of your visit, and you are mandated to help protect the children you serve. Have you ever had to make a tough call or wonder what you might do if you were in that situation? Leave us a comment – just make sure that you are protecting families’ confidentiality….
Join us on February 10, 2016 when we get together to talk about Guiding Conversations about Social/Emotional Assessments. Invite someone you’re working with out in the field, and come enjoy a snack and great conversation!