All too often, there are reports in the news of children being abused or neglected. My heart breaks as I try to fathom what could possess an adult to physically or sexually harm or to fail to provide even most basic care to a child. As a psychotherapist, I am a mandated reporter of abuse or neglect and have made numerous reports to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) over the years. Those calls are never easy to make, but I take comfort in knowing that I may be the only person in a vulnerable person’s life to try to protect them.
Sadly, we tend to hear about reports incidents of abuse where DCF wasn’t able to help a child quickly enough or there wasn’t enough evidence at the time to warrant removing a child to prevent further abuse. However, reports that I have made to DCF have been investigated and acted on properly to further protect the child(ren) I was concerned about.
Governor Scott recently enacted legislation in Florida requiring ANYONE who suspects that a child is being abused or neglected to make a report to DCF. Failure to make a report in those cases is now a felony. I believe that this is a step in the right direction in making everyone accountable to report child abuse.
So what exactly do you do to make a report to DCF? Most people want to do the right thing but don’t know what steps to take. Some people are reluctant to make a report for fear of retaliation from the suspected abuser if they find out who reported the abuse. Others are unsure if they have enough “proof” of abuse and would feel terrible if they falsely accused someone of abuse without being absolutely sure there is abuse going on.
How does DCF define abuse or neglect of a child? According to the Florida Statute 39.01, child abuse means abandonment, abuse, harm, mental injury, neglect, physical injury or sexual abuse of a child. If you are unsure if a particular incident meets the criteria of abuse, review the statute online which provides a very detailed explanation of each term listed above.
Reports to DCF can be made anonymously unless you are a mandated reporter (for example: a physician, nurse, teacher, mental health professional, etc.) However, even if you give your name when you make a report, that information is NOT shared with anyone except the investigator who doesn’t disclose who made the report to the accused or the victim. It is usually helpful to provide your name in case the DCF investigator has further questions about the abuse allegations or has trouble locating the child.
You cannot be held liable if you make a report to DCF in good faith. Let’s say that your child’s friend discloses to you that her uncle molested her last week. It is not necessary to have observed the incident or to investigate if it really happened. All you are required to do is to make the report based on the information you have at that time.
Intentionally and maliciously making a false DCF report is a third degree felony and also carries a fine up to $10,000 per violation.
Making a report to DCF in Florida
There are three ways to make a report to DCF.
Before you make your report, it is helpful to write down as many details as you can about the incident of abuse and risk of further abuse. Here are some things you will be asked to provide to in your report:
Name, age or DOB, race, gender for all adults and children involved
Addresses or other means to locate the adults and children involved
Relationship of alleged perpetrator to the child
What abuse or neglect you observed or were told by the victim (when it happened, where it happened, extent of injuries, etc.)
If you do not have all the details listed above, don’t delay making a report using any information you do have. However, it is very helpful to provide as much detailed information as possible to help the investigator do their job. Personally, I prefer to call the Abuse Hotline (1-800-96-ABUSE) and speak to a person about my concerns rather than make a report online or by fax. When you call, you may have to wait on hold for a while before you speak with a DCF representative. After you provide all the details about the suspected abuse, the DCF representative will inform you during your call if your report was “accepted” and will be investigated. If your report was not accepted, it is because what you are reporting is not considered abuse or neglect according to DCF or there is insufficient information to proceed with an investigation.
There are more than 1 million children each year who are victims of abuse or neglect in Florida according to child protective agencies. Many of these victims don’t ever receive help because their abuse wasn’t reported. When parents don’t, won’t or can’t protect or care for their children, the Department of Children and Families step in to help in many ways. But, DCF can’t help if they don’t know about the abuse. Protecting our children is protecting our future!
As a licensed mental health professional, I’ve worked in a variety of hospital settings where I have worked with adults and teens who have tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. The vast majority of those who survived their suicide attempt were so grateful to have survived their attempt. Almost all of them want to learn how to better cope with life so that they never reach a point that they feel so hopeless, desperate and impulsive again. In working with family members after a loved one’s suicide attempt, it has been challenging to explain how their loved one could reach such a hopeless state of mind that suicide was the only or best option.
As a mother to two teenage boys, one of my goals is to teach them how to manage life’s emotional challenges like not getting that job they really want, not making the varsity team, or the breakup of their first true love. Recently, I was assessing a teenage patient in the ICU who barely survived a very serious suicide attempt after the breakup of his first serious relationship. As I talked to him and his family, I couldn’t help but to ask myself “What if that were my son?” This particular young man had a very bright future academically, yet he felt so emotionally distraught that the only solution in his mind was to take a bottle of pills.
Throughout my years of practice, I’ve learned that when people are unable to acknowledge, understand or cope with emotional pain, anger, sadness, or grief in a healthy way that they typically turn to unhealthy ways of coping like misusing drugs or alcohol to numb their pain. Alternatively, they may engage in impulsive and dangerous behaviors including cutting and suicide. As a therapist, my work with these clients is to help them recognize, understand, and better cope with their emotional pain in a healthier way.
Emotional intelligence is a term that relates to one’s ability to recognize their own emotions, other people’s emotions, AND to manage unpleasant emotions in a healthy way. Studies show that people who have high emotional intelligence and emotional resiliency are much less likely to self harm either by cutting or attempting suicide or to misuse drugs and alcohol. When children demonstrate high emotional intelligence, they are more likely to use healthy coping skills and have healthier relationships with others. However, it is rare that our children’s school curriculum includes teaching about emotional intelligence, so it’s one of those things that we have to learn on our own.
How can parents influence their children’s emotional intelligence?
There are many things that parents can do to teach and model emotional intelligence and emotional resiliency to our children. In addition to teaching our children how to read, tie their shoes, and how to drive a stick shift, we need to also teach them about emotions. We need to show them that it’s okay to ask for help when we are struggling. We can normalize their emotions when they are sad, lonely, or down on themselves. We can be brave enough to share our own pain as children and teenagers like not getting asked to the prom. We can talk to our children as we watch news stories about people who deal with their anger or fear in an unhealthy or illegal way. We can support and encourage our children when they talk to us about something that is bothering them. We can avoid labeling or degrading those who seek counseling or psychiatric care for anxiety, depression or to simply improve their mental health. We need “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.” We need to model to our children healthy ways of coping with life’s stressors, challenges and heartbreaks. We need to have conversations about ways to manage stress with our children and encourage them to find their own healthy stress management skills. We need to talk with them about how to forgive ourselves if we make a mistake. We need to teach them to problem solve so that they don’t repeat mistakes. We need to talk to them about healthy relationships and what makes a relationship abusive. These types of conversations may not come as easily to some parents as conversations about their homework and chores. But, the payoff to your child is well-worth your effort.
It is normal to want to protect our children from both physical and emotional pain in life. Of course, most parents acknowledge that we cannot protect them from everything, but we can prepare them for life. We need to do more than tell our children not to cry, to just suck it up, to get over it, to forget about it, or to be strong. As parents, we need to acknowledge and talk about ALL the emotions we experience in life. We need to be human and share with our children how we learned to cope with our disappointments, break-ups/divorces, job losses, financial crises, and deaths of loved ones. When children, teens, and adults feel supported and capable of handling life’s emotional ups and downs, they are much less likely to reach a place of hopelessness, helplessness, and desperation where self-harm or suicide feels like the best option.
From the desk of Dana Nolan, Licensed Mental Health Counselor…
April is Child Abuse Prevention month. In my practice, I have way too many clients who suffered childhood abuse and/or neglect and now have ongoing emotional or psychological issues related to trust, self-esteem, depression, anxiety/PTSD and unhealthy relationships. My job as a therapist is to help survivors of childhood abuse work through the abuse to become happy, well-adjusted adults. Ideally, it is always better to prevent a problem than to try and fix it later on.
Florida Governor Scott recently approved laws aimed at reducing childhood abuse. Today, anyone who fails to report incidents of child abuse, neglect or exploitation can be charged with a felony. Previously, only “mandated” reporters (doctors, nurses, mental health professionals and teachers) were obligated to report known or suspected abuse of a child or vulnerable adult. The purpose of this law was to make EVERYONE responsible for reporting abuse. Historically, child abuse was considered a private, family matter and many adults failed to report abuse they observed or suspected because they believed it was “none of my business.” This new Florida law means that it is EVERYONE’S business to look out for our youth and vulnerable adults.
It is really quite easy to make a report to the Department of Children and Families services here in Florida. You simply call 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873) or log onto https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us. It is important to have specific information ready to provide in making the report: Name, date of birth (or approximate,) race, gender, address or location of child and what exactly you observed that leads you to believe that a child is being abused, neglected or exploited. All reports to DCF are confidential and you cannot be held liable for making a report provided it is made in good faith.
Most of my clients who suffered childhood abuse or neglect have said they always wondered why no one ever stuck up for them or reported the abuse when it was observed. Please know that you CAN make a difference in the life of a abused or neglected child by being that ONE person who does stick up for them and makes that phone call to make a report.