What Are My Legal Obligations When I Suspect Child Abuse and Neglect?
Witnessing behaviors in children or interactions between children and adults that make you suspect the child is being abused or neglected can leave you in a difficult position. Your instincts are telling you intervention may be necessary to ensure the child is safe and able to thrive. Yet, you may wonder if you are missing details or whether intervention might make things worse.
Obligations when suspecting child abuse and neglect vary. Those responsible for the health, safety, and well-being of children must report suspected abuse or neglect. Others can report but are not obligated to.
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, Mills & Anderson is here to support you. Although we cannot decide whether to report for you, we can shed light on the legal aspects of reporting.
What Are “Abuse” and “Neglect”?
By law, abuse or neglect of a child includes:
- Causing nonaccidental physical or mental injury;
- Committing sexual abuse or exploitation;
- Terrorizing, degrading, or traumatizing a child;
- Abandoning a child without proper care, control, or supervision; and
- Failing or refusing to provide shelter, subsistence, education, or necessary medical care.
While anyone can abuse a child, only a person responsible for the child’s welfare can neglect them.
Who Must Report?
Legal responsibilities for child neglect and abuse reporting apply to most individuals who work with or around children regularly.
Individuals who must report are often called mandatory reporters. Mandatory reporters must report their suspicions if they “know or have reasonable cause to believe” a child is being or has been abused or neglected. In Nevada, some examples of mandatory reporters include:
- Doctors, nurses, paramedics, medical assistants, dentists, chiropractors, pharmacists, and nearly all other medical professionals;
- Psychologists, therapists, social workers, counselors, and similar mental health service providers;
- Medical facility staff;
- Members of religious clergy;
- Any public or private school employee or volunteer;
- Anyone who runs a daycare, child care, or camp service for children;
- Anyone licensed to run a foster home;
- Law enforcement officers;
- Employees and volunteers of entities that provide advice regarding abuse or neglect of children;
- Employees and volunteers of youth shelters;
- Adult employees of any entity that provides organized activities for children;
- Medicaid-authorized doulas; and
- Peer recovery support specialists and supervisors.
Treatment providers who believe a newborn infant they are treating shows signs of fetal alcohol syndrome or other fetal substance exposure must also report.
If you are unsure where you fall, the definition is meant to be broad, so it is often wise to err on the side of caution. And the law is explicit that, while some people must report, anyone can report.
Mandatory Reporter Exceptions
There are some exceptions to mandatory reporting. Generally, those exceptions apply to those entitled to confidentiality. For example, clergy are not required to report abuse or neglect they learn about during confession.
And attorneys cannot report if they learn about the abuse or neglect from a client they are defending from accusations of abuse or neglect. Attorneys also cannot report if their client is the victim, is in foster care, and did not give consent. An attorney may still report if taking reasonably necessary actions to protect a client who cannot weigh the decision appropriately.
When Should You Report?
Mandatory reporters must report suspected abuse or neglect as soon as “reasonably practicable.” More specifically, you must report within 24 hours of when you know or have reasonable cause to believe abuse or neglect is occurring or has occurred.
You have reasonable cause when the facts and circumstances you know or should know would make a reasonable person believe abuse or neglect has occurred or is occurring. In other words, you can generally apply common sense.
How Do You Report?
There are several ways to report suspected abuse or neglect under the law. The most important things are ensuring the report happens quickly and the information is as reliable as possible in the circumstances. Notably, the primary method of reporting is through phone calls, and your report can be made anonymously.
Information to Include
When you report, you should provide the following information if available:
- The child’s name, age, sex, and address;
- The parents or guardians’ names and addresses;
- The nature and extent of the suspected abuse or neglect;
- Information about previous abuse or neglect;
- The name, address, and relationship to the child of the person you suspect of abuse or neglect; and
- Any other information the agency you report to considers necessary.
If you do not know every detail, you should try to be as thorough as possible and provide as much information as you can.
Where You Can Report
If there is an emergency, call 911 to report directly to emergency services.
Otherwise, the Nevada Department of Health & Human Services (NDHHS) offers contact information for agencies to report to. For Clark County, you can call 702-399-0081 or, if you are a mandatory reporter, submit a report online. For Washoe County, you call 833-900-SAFE. If you live in any other county, you can call 833-571-1041 during work hours or 833-803-1183 outside normal work hours, including on holidays.
What Happens When You Report Suspected Abuse or Neglect?
Based on the information you provide, the NDHHS or your county will investigate. Typically, the investigation will be performed by a social worker.
If the social worker concludes abuse or neglect has occurred, they will generally make a formal report that results in a petition being filed against the abuser stating that the child is in need of protection. Social services will officially become involved. What that involvement looks like depends on the circumstances, particularly who committed the abuse, whether the child is safe in their current environment, and how cooperative the adults involved are.
What Happens If You Do Not Report Suspected Abuse or Neglect?
If you are a mandatory reporter and “knowingly and willfully” fail to report abuse or neglect, you commit a misdemeanor. For every additional violation, you commit a gross misdemeanor.
When you are convicted of a misdemeanor, you can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and ordered to pay up to a $1,000 fine. Your sentence can be replaced by up to 200 hours of community service.
When you are convicted of a gross misdemeanor, you can be sentenced to up to 364 days in jail and owe a fine of up to $2,000. If you commit a gross misdemeanor on school property or at a school activity, you must generally serve a mandatory minimum of 15 days in jail.
Reporting child abuse legally protects you from these and related consequences. Failing to report can result not only in significant fines and jail time, but potential difficulty continuing in your career with a public record of your criminal conviction.
Where Can You Get Help with Reporting Suspected Abuse or Neglect?
Figuring out what to do when you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, especially on a 24-hour deadline, is challenging to navigate alone. The attorneys at Mills & Anderson understand the difficult position you are in. We can advise you of your legal rights and obligations when suspecting child abuse and neglect. Reach out for a confidential consultation today.