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How can I help my client when the system didn't respond?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

What should an adult do after CPS investigates and says the accusations are unfounded? A client is in the aftermath of experiencing this, having been told by a young boy that his dad hurt him (using specific terrible sexual language) and everything was determined unfounded. The children were put in the primary custody of the alleged abuser who was "cleared." How should I tell the client to continue with life and dealing with the alleged abuser and more importantly the child? What does someone do to effectively stop an abuser?

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Professional,

I’m so sorry to hear that your client is going through such a difficult situation. Having a child disclose that they are being harmed can be overwhelming, and can leave the listener feeling powerless. Understandably it can be even more distressing when the system becomes involved and instead of protecting the child, they are put back in the hands of the abuser. You’ve asked some very good questions about a very difficult set of circumstances, and I’m glad that you’ve reached out to help support your client.

Your client may feel sad, angry, or like they did the wrong thing – they didn’t. Assure them that they absolutely did the right thing. Whenever a child is being harmed it is the adult’s responsibility to speak up on their behalf. That is exactly what she did, and now the best thing you can do will be to help them respond to the system and to the child appropriately.

Responding to CPS
If your client is looking to take further action, it may be helpful for her to read: What Can I Do When the System Seems Unable to Protect the Child? Contacting the caseworker to request a copy of the final report written by Child Protective Services (CPS) would be a good first step. Then she can talk to the State Liason Officer (SLO) for CPS in New York. A SLO is someone you can contact to file a complaint if you feel that a CPS case was not handled fairly. Please visit this page on Child Welfare Complaint Offices to find their contact information.

ChildHelp suggests some other ways to address system failure may be to contact your CPS caseworker’s supervisor and “let them know they feel the case is not being handled appropriately and that they are still concerned about the children involved. If the case has been closed, they can request that it be reopened. Supervisors can be contacted at the county level of Child Protective Services...” Other ideas include to “contact the state chapter of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (NCPCA) as they may be more familiar with state laws/protocols for responding to abuse reports they may also have referrals to local advocacy groups,” Also, your local District Attorney’s office may be able to give you more information about children’s and parent’s rights as well as state laws that may be applicable to your situation.

Although your client may feel upset, it is always best to remain neutral and calm; if anyone is unable to answer their questions at CPS, ask for their supervisor. You may be a good support for them in roleplaying potential ways of handling certain scenarios, from both administrative follow-ups to how to handle family situations. 

Emergency Planning
I’m worried for this child, as this sounds like he is in ongoing abusive situation. I’m hoping that your client can talk to this little boy about what to do when he is in danger or being harmed: discuss emergency plans and what he can do when he is in a crisis situation. If he has a cellphone, program the phone numbers of a safe and trusted caregiver, as well as the numbers for CPS, 911, and talk about each. Your Life Your Voice (1.800.448.3000) by Boystown also has text chat enabled from 6p-12a CST (text VOICE to 20121), in addition to a 24/7 crisis line.

If there is a trusted neighbor, perhaps a family member can speak to them and see if it’s okay if this child can come over if they are in danger, or would be willing to check on them while he is at his father’s house. If it is a school day, this boy can always talk to his teachers or guidance counselor. Discuss other ways this child can let the important adults in his life know when he is scared or being hurt even if his calls are being monitored – like by sending a message or saying a phrase that means they are in danger. If this little boy discloses abuse again, your client should go to the nearest National Child Advocacy Center or E.R. to document any physical evidence of abuse as soon as they are noted, and then follow up with his pediatrician. As hesitant as your client may be, always encourage her to report any new disclosures.

Finding Support for the Child
For now, encourage your client have her son to see his own counselor, so if he does disclose again the listener will be mandated to file a report to CPS as well. Encouraging the child to speak up to a teacher or coach about what is going on, as well as arranging for him to meet with the guidance counselor may also ensure that CPS is alerted that this boy is not in a safe situation.

Legal Considerations
If your client is a parent fighting for custody, I would encourage them to look for advice from an attorney who is well versed in custody cases that involve child sexual abuse accusations by a custodial parent; please see our Legal and Advocacy resources. This may be important as there are certain challenges that one may encounter, and that they may already be witnessing, when in this scenario. This article by Attorney Arlaine Rockey called “Protecting Children From Sexual Abuse” highlights just those very difficulties and what a non-offending caregiver can do about it. If this is the case, the following resources may also be beneficial to your client:

  • Custody Cases Involving Child Sexual Abuse
  • Justice for Children: Offers information, guidance and assistance to adults who are trying to keep the child safe in the child protection system.  Offers a pro bono legal program for free legal help when it appears that a court or agency will return a child to an abusive situation. They can also be reached at 1.800.733.0059.

Being a support for this child is something that is significant for this little boy. This is by no means an easy situation, but it sounds like your client is someone safe that he can be with. Encourage your client to continue to model good boundaries with this child, showing him that there are people who care about him, and his safety and wellbeing are important. 

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: February 5th, 2016