Vulnerable Adults Abuse
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What You Need to Know About Filing a Report
Filing a report of abuse is a serious responsibility and one that should be treated such. However if you've never called to make a report of suspected abuse before it's understandable that you might be anxious, nervous, and/or have questions. We hope to address some of those concerns here.
Who Can File a Report?
Anybody can file a report of suspected abuse as long as you have reasonable cause to suspect that someone is being or has been harmed. You do not need to be a professonal, related to the person, or even know them personally.
Some professionals such as therapists, medical personnel, guidance counselors, teachers, and others may be required to file reports of suspected abuse. These individuals are known as mandated reporters. Because of their positions, background, and training, reporting allegations or suspicions of abuse are not an option, but a mandate. Non-professionals such as friends, neighbors, and family members are encouraged to file a report when appropriate, but are not required to do so.
What is Reportable?
Unfortunately this is not as straightfoward a question as it may sound like. It's not as simple as saying something like hitting that causes a bruise is reportable while hitting without causing a bruise is not.
There are a few important concepts however that may help you to determine what is potentially reportable and what is not.
Abuse and Neglect
You may have heard of both abuse and neglect, however you may not know the difference between the two. Abuse involves actively causing or bringing harm to another person by doing something that should not be done. An example of this could be intentionally pushing a child down the stairs.
Neglect on the other hand, refers to passively bringing harm to another person by not doing something that should be done. For example, refusing to bathe or properly clothe for the weather an elderly adult who is under someone's care could be construed as neglectful behavior.
The point to remember here is that both abuse and neglect are reportable. A person does not have to endure bruises or broken bones for an incident to be deemed reportable. The intention is to intervene before things get more serious.
In Good Faith
When making a decision about whether or not to make a report, you should also keep in mind the concept of acting "in good faith". This means that you genuinely believe that a person is in danger. There is clearly an inherent degree of discretion that's involved, and those investigating reports understand this.
For instance, children will get hurt from time to time. Their enthusiasm may lead them to run into a tree or trip on the leg of a table. So seeing cuts and scrapes does not necessarily mean there is abuse happening. However if you see a theme of injuries in a normally careful child, they appear squeemish when asked about it, and they seem to be trying to hide their injuries you may have more suspicion, even if you have no hard evidence.
The key is that when you make a report you're doing so for the benefit of another person because you honestly and genuinely believe that abuse or neglect is occuring. In other words, you're acting in good faith.
Legal Jurisdiction: Where You Live
Making things more confusing is that what is considered abuse or neglect in one place may not be somewhere else. Local officials in one state or county may determine a particular act to be abusive or neglectful, while another jurisdiction may rule otherwise.
Consider a child who witnesses their parents having an argument. In one place allowing the child to witness a bad enough fight may be a reportable incident even if there's no physical harm to anyone. In another location, it may only be a reportable incident if someone gets phsyically injured.
So part of what determines whether or not something is reportable and whether it really is abuse or neglect is the context of the incident and the legal precedents set in previous rulings in the jurisdiction where you would be making a report.
What If I'm Still Unsure?
Making a report about suspected abuse or neglect is a serious decision and will likely result in an investigation. Therefore it's understandable that you wouldn't want to make a mistake.
Many people do not realize that you can actually call your local reporting hotline just to get information. Before you make an official report, you can simply ask questions. Ask them a hypothetical question. Ask them if this or that scenario would be reportable. Most agencies will be understanding and patient with you. They understand the seriousness of the issue and want to help you to make an informed decision and to understand your options.
How Do I Make a Report?
Once you decide to make a report of suspected abuse, you simply make a phone call. Depending on where you live you may be calling a state or county level agency. You should be able to easily find the appropriate number online. A good place to start is the following links depending on whether you're calling about suspected child abuse, elder abuse, or vulnerable adult abuse.
Domestic violence and abuse against adults not deemed "vulnerable" is not reportable. Click here to learn more.
What Will They Ask?
When you call to make a report, you're basically asking for an investigation to begin. They will ask you for the name of the person or people you believe are being abused or neglected along with any contact information you may have for them. They will ask what you know and how you know it. For instance, did you personally witness something happen or are you basing your concerns on signs and symptoms? They'll want to know what you actually saw that caught you attention.
They'll also ask a little about yourself. How did you find out what you know? Are you a neighbor who watched from your backyard? Were you sitting in the stands of a soccer game when you saw something happen? Did you intervene in any way? Are you a mandated reporter? What does your gut tell you about what was happening?
They will also likely want your name and contact information should they need to follow up or ask you any questions. If you're concerned about sharing your personal information, you can always call and ask if they'll allow you to file an anonymous report. Whether they allow anonymous reporting or not will depend on the specific agency you're calling.
What Happens After a Report is Made?
After you hang up the phone having made a report, an investigation will commence. The appropriate local agency will interview the affected parties including if possible both the accused and the possible subject of the abuse or neglect. Depending on the outcome of that investigation recommendations will be made and appropriate action taken.
Counseling may be recommended for an individual or the family. Medical care may be initiated. In extreme cases a person may be removed from a home, though this is tyically a last resort and not something that social service workers want to do if not necessary. In other cases, the investigation may determine that there is no evidence to support the allegations. In this case, no further action would be taken. Of course your report will remain on file for possible future reference. Just because there is no evidence today doesn't mean that your report combined with future events wouldn't consitute a reason to act later on.
What Happens If I'm Wrong?
Sometimes what looks like abuse or neglect is not and sometimes we're just wrong. As concerned family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, etc. we won't always have all of the details. Working with incomplete information can lead to mistakes. The agencies that accept reports of suspected abuse and neglect realize this. They also want people to err on the side of caution. In other words, they'll accept that not all reports will lead to actual cases of abuse or neglect if it keeps them from not hearing about being able to assist in other cases that clearly are abusive and/or neglectful.
So long as you act in good faith as explained above you should not have to fear any legal ramifications. It is only in cases of malicious actions where a person may intentionally make false reports to harm the reputation of someone else that you should have to worry about potentially being sued. The law is designed to protect people making honest reports in good faith.
Will They Tell me the Outcome of the Investigation?
No. You will most likely not be told the outcome of the investigation. That information will usually be held confidential. There may be some exceptions, such as if you're a relative and social services is looking to you to temporarily house an abused or neglected child. But for the most part, do not expect to be told anything after you've made your report.
Obviously if you made a phone call, you have an interest in how things turn out. But this is one of those cases in life where we have to just accept not knowing the outcome. Of course, if you feel it appropriate you can always call again if what you in good faith believe to be abuse or neglect continues.
Is Domestic Violence Reportable?
Some people wonder if domestic violence is reportable the same way that child abuse is; after all if one form of abuse can be reported, why shouldn't another be reportable?
Domestic Violence is not actually reportable in the same way that child abuse is.
Reportability is a legal issue. It has to do with responsibility and not the emotional effects, consequences, and trauma that abuse of any form can cause.
Child abuse is reportable because children at their age are not legally considered to be mature enough to understand what is happening or how to handle the abuse/neglect that is often caused by an adult who is supposed to be caring for them, such as a parent or other relative.
Likewise, older adults may not be as capable due to physical issues and in some cases mental decline associated with age. Thus it is also possible to report elder abuse that you may become aware of.
Adults on the other hand (generally defined as those over 18 and under 60 years of age) are legally deemed to be competant and responsible for themselves, except in cases of certain disabilities. For this reason, there is no domestic violence reporting hotline where you can call to file a report if your neighbor, friend, or other loved one is being abused.
In cases of domestic violence, or adult abuse, it is not the (legally determined) role of government officials to determine whether or not it remains safe for a person to continue living in their current environment. Adults are expected to make their own decisions about what is and what is not a safe living environment.
At any time however if things become violent or a person's safety is at risk, the police may be called. Even if you're unsure of what's actually happening, sometimes it's better to be safe than sorry. The police will investigate any reports they receive of suspected physical or sexual abuse and act accordingly, including separating the two parties if necessary, even if only temporarily.
Keep in mind that there is a difference between what the law says about the capabilities of an adult in an abusive relationship and how "capable" of helping herself or himself a person may feel when involved in an abusive relationship. Often those in such relationships are so emotionally and mentally broken down that it becomes exceptionally difficult for them to reach out for help on their own.
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