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!