What can we do if we think abuse or neglect may be happening in a family? In HSLDA’s experience, the vast majority of homeschooling parents love their children and strive to provide safe, happy childhoods. But no community is immune to the tragedy of child abuse.
Here are some things to think about that can help you decide how to respond if you suspect a family of child abuse.
How certain is your knowledge?
Suspicions of child abuse or neglect are serious, and it is important to take into account their source and reliability. Be very cautious of hearsay—both what is told to you and what you tell to others. Rumor is often far removed from facts. If your suspicions are based on direct observation of the family, we still urge caution. There may be a reasonable explanation for what you have observed. We do not by any means suggest that you should ignore your genuine suspicions, but rather that you should proceed with care.
What is the nature of the situation?
Different responses may be appropriate to different circumstances. Sometimes what appears to be neglect, for example, does not result from intentional lack of care but rather because the family is struggling financially or with some other challenge. Depending on the situation, you may be able to assist a family most effectively by offering to help them personally.
Can you respond privately?
This may mean speaking with the family directly about your concerns or trying other avenues of help, such as the family’s relatives, church, homeschool group, or other community.
Should you call child protective services (CPS)?
All states have a CPS system whose role is to investigate child abuse and neglect accusations. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, CPS may refer the family for special services such as counseling or support groups, bring charges in juvenile court, refer the matter to the police for criminal investigation, or remove the children from the home. If you legitimately believe that abuse or criminal neglect (real harm to a child) is occurring, and if personal intervention with the family is not advisable, a report to the police or CPS is appropriate. If there is legitimate reason to believe that a child is being subjected to sexual abuse, call the police at once.
Should you call the police?
In an emergency situation—if you believe that a child is at risk of imminent serious harm—please call 911.
What is mandatory reporting?
Every state has laws that require certain people (called “mandatory reporters”) to report all suspected child abuse and neglect to the proper authorities or be liable to prosecution. Mandatory reporters are usually people who might come to know of instances of child abuse in the course of exercising their profession—doctors and other medical personnel, teachers and other educators, counselors and therapists, and social workers. If you have questions about whether you are a mandatory reporter, please contact HSLDA.
Why does HSLDA have concerns about the way child abuse investigations are carried out?
HSLDA agrees with what the United States Court of Appeals said in the Calabretta case: “The government’s interest in the welfare of children embraces not only protecting children from physical abuse, but also protecting children’s interest in the privacy and dignity of their homes and in the lawfully exercised authority of their parents.”
However, current CPS and judicial practice often treats child abuse investigations as an exception to traditional constitutional rules that protect children and parents from unnecessary government intervention, especially during the early stages of a CPS investigation.
Some social workers and law enforcement personnel follow up any allegation from mild neglect to severe abuse by insisting that they be allowed to interview the children and search the family’s home without a warrant. They may refuse to tell the parents the allegations against them and, if the parents are hesitant about allowing the interview or home visit, may use threats of removing the children to get the parent to comply.
HSLDA believes that child abuse investigations should be carried out consistent with the applicable constitutional rules to mitigate the stress and fear felt by parents and children and to redirect CPS resources toward the most pressing and serious child abuse situations.
Why does HSLDA help member families in the initial stage of a child abuse investigation?
HSLDA’s mission is primarily to advance homeschooling rights. Sometimes homeschooling parents get reported to CPS because people misunderstand homeschooling. They may see children playing outside during school hours and think that the parents are allowing them to be truant. Other times, families are reported for other types of suspected abuse or neglect. Investigations of all such allegations begin the same way: a social worker visits the family’s home, or contacts them requesting to set up a visit.
HSLDA advises our members in these initial contacts with social workers in order to ensure that their constitutional rights are protected. Once the allegations are revealed, we continue to represent our members if the allegations relate to homeschooling.
HSLDA has in the past, and may choose in the future, to take cases that are not materially related to homeschooling but in which there has been a clear violation of the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures or of parental rights. We reserve the right to accept such cases at our sole discretion.
If I think a family might be abusing or neglecting their children, can I call HSLDA for advice?
We are always happy to help our members. If you have suspicions of child abuse or neglect, we may be able to assist you as you consider how best to proceed, although the final decision will be left to you. We may be unable to answer questions that are specific in nature, especially if they involve another member family. Because HSLDA is a law firm, when our attorneys speak with our members about legal issues it can create an attorney-client relationship. If a member is calling regarding suspicions about another member family, this potentially causes a conflict of interest for HSLDA.
The information on this webpage and our child abuse resource page can also help you think about what action to take if you are concerned about possible abuse in a family.
Do you need help right away?
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline
Call 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) and press 1 to speak with a hotline counselor 24/7. All calls are anonymous. The hotline counselors do not report abuse, but can tell you how to get help in your local area. For more information about the hotline, visit Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline or Help for Kids.
Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family offers a wealth of resources ranging from education to help for families in crisis. Visit Focus on the Family or call 1-855-771-HELP (4357), Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. Mountain Time to speak with Focus on the Family Help Center counselors.
If there is an emergency, please call 911.
Please note: Nothing on this webpage constitutes the giving of legal advice.