What if it Happened a Long Time Ago?
If an incident of child abuse or neglect has never been reported before, it must be reported to the appropriate authorities, just like any other report of suspected abuse or neglect. This means that even if an incident occurred many years ago, the child is not at risk of further harm or neglect, or the child is now an adult, the incident must still be reported by your child’s counselor.
Although counselors are committed to confidentiality, all mental health professionals are considered "mandated reporters," which means that they are required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect to appropriate state authorities, such as the Department of Children and Families or Child Protective Services.
Although this may seem unnecessary, consider the many examples in the news of repeat child sexual offenders. How many of those incidents could have been avoided if the first child had reported the abuse? Put yourself in the shoes of a parent whose child is now exposed to the alleged perpetrator of the incident you or your child are reporting. Wouldn’t you want any previous incidents of child abuse or neglect to be reported, even if it was years after the incident?
Sometimes children witness and report abuse or neglect that has happened to another child. Source: Patrick Fore/Unsplash
What if My Child Wasn’t Involved?
Sometimes children witness or hear about abuse or neglect that has happened to another child, such as a sibling, cousin, or friend. Your child’s counselor is also required by law to report these allegations, just as they would report the suspected abuse or neglect of their own clients. Similarly, if you report actions that would be legally considered abusive or neglectful toward any child in your care—such as a child you are babysitting, coaching, or providing daycare for—a child abuse report will be filed, even though the child in question is not your own.
Additionally, many states have laws that require mandated reporters (like your child’s counselor) to report the suspected abuse or neglect of other vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and the disabled. You can find your state's mandated reporting laws here .
Finally, many states require that a child abuse report is made if there is reason to believe that domestic violence is occurring in a child’s home, even if that child has not been physically harmed. Often these laws state that living in a violent home produces "emotional" or "mental" injury to the child that warrants intervention.
Genuine accidents that result in injury to a child are generally not considered child abuse. Source: Nikoline Arns/Unsplash
"Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives." - Maya Angelou
What if it Was an Accident?
Accidental injury to your child is generally not considered child abuse unless that accident occurred because you were negligent or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Every parent has moments where they accidentally bump their child, or where their child injures themselves during a moment of parental distraction, and these genuine accidents are not considered child maltreatment.
Additionally, injuries your child accidentally receives while you are trying to prevent greater harm—such as bruises created on your child’s arm as you pull them out of oncoming traffic—are generally not considered child abuse.
Trauma Touches Every Child
What if My Child’s Counselor Makes a Child Abuse Report?
The greatest fear of many parents is that their child could make a vague statement that appears to indicate child abuse during a therapy session, and then be whisked away by child protective services before the parent has had an opportunity to explain the situation. The internet abounds with (often one-sided) horror stories, and some parents decide not to enroll their children in counseling based on this fear.
However, agencies designed to ensure child welfare understand that children do best when they can live safely with their families of origin. For this reason, removing a child from their home is a last resort intervention that is only used when it is determined through an investigation that a child is at immediate risk of further harm or neglect. In many cases, a child abuse investigation results in no change in a child’s immediate living situation, either due to the report failing to meet a state’s criteria for beginning an investigation or due to the investigation finding that the child is not at immediate risk of further harm or neglect.
"Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying." - Fran Lebowitz
What if I Have More Questions?
If you have more questions about the reporting laws or procedures in your state, you can look up your local statutes through the Department of Health and Human Services' Child Welfare Information Gateway .
Additionally, the child protective services agencies of most states maintain helpful websites where parents can learn more about their local child maltreatment reporting processes, as well as the services offered to families determined to be in need. Some state agencies even allow parents struggling to find effective disciplinary methods to call in and enroll themselves in preventative services such as parenting groups and family therapy.