Every month, the Herald-Banner publishes news stories about cases in which an adult is accused or convicted of sexually abusing a child. The cases of non-sexual abuse are even more numerous, and – tragically – many child-abuse incidents never get reported to authorities, statistics show.
It’s the kind of thing we’d rather not have to tell readers about. Our editorial staff would love for this to be a world in which all adults could be trusted to treat children appropriately. But while most adults would never act inappropriately with a child, let alone sexually abuse one, it’s the few who do that require all of us to remain vigilant and watchful.
The only way to ensure that children are protected is for all of us to pay attention, for all of us to speak up when we suspect a child is being abused (sexually or otherwise).
Under Texas law, anyone who suspects a child is being abused or neglected is required to report it to either the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services or to local law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies conduct criminal investigations to figure out who (if anyone) committed a crime, according to the Texas DFPS website. DFPS handles civil investigations into suspected abuse or neglect, in order to ensure the welfare of the child and their family.
Time is of the essence because evidence of abuse can disappear or be muddied as days pass, DFPS officials say. A bruise may heal and memories may fade before investigators can take note of them.
You’re protected from liability if you provide information about what you sincerely believe could be a case of child abuse or neglect, unless you are reporting about your own maltreatment of a child. Concerned citizens who make reports are not expected to know for sure whether abuse is happening or not; that’s what a trained, law enforcement investigator is for. (Of course, you could be held liable for a report made in bad faith, such as one intended as revenge, DFPS notes).
It’s true that some situations appear murky. Perhaps you’ve long known about a family’s ongoing problems, but you didn’t think until recently that they had worsened into abuse or neglect. If that’s the case, DFPS says it’s best to go ahead and report your suspicions rather than waiting for more information.
So what information would you need in order to file a report? To start with, help authorities locate the child. The names of the child and anyone involved would be ideal, but a description of the child and their home or school is still a start, if you don’t know names.
You’ll need to describe what made you think abuse could be happening. Be prepared to give as much information as you know about the child’s age and condition, too, such as whether they have any medical conditions or you’ve noticed injuries. That helps authorities determine the level of danger involved.
One last thing. If you aren’t sure whether to report, you can call the authorities and ask. Texas DFPS workers or police can discuss the situation and explain in general what constitutes abuse or neglect. More information is available on the Texas DFPS’s website, www.dfps.state.tx.us.
To report abuse that is urgent and/or should be investigated right away, call 800-252-5400. Non-urgent abuse reports can be made online at www.TxAbuseHotline.org.