There is nothing more gut-wrenching than a suffering child. When a child is not being cared for or treated properly it often triggers an instinct in us to scoop the child up and protect him or her. Even so, the thought of calling authorities or reporting suspected maltreatment of a child can be nerve-racking.

The reality is that some people will call CPS when it is unwarranted, while others will turn a blind-eye to abuse and neglect because they do not want to get involved. Knowing what and when to report can be a difficult to discern, depending on the complexity of the situation or your relationship (or non-relationship) with the child(ren), family, or caregiver.

Federal law sets the minimum behavior that is identified as abuse and neglect. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse and neglect as: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation,” or “An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Look into Your State Laws

Child abuse and neglect laws can vary greatly by state. It is important that you know what qualifies as abuse or neglect within the state you reside before calling CPS. Visit Child Welfare to search the statutes for your state. While it is not in the federal language, many states require mandated reporters to report when they have “reasonable suspicion” of abuse or neglect of a child.

Check Your Motives

Calling CPS is serious. Calling for any reason outside of the reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect hurts families and slows down an already overwhelmed system.

Before calling, evaluate your motives and feelings. If you are calling because you don’t like the parents, disagree with how the children are being parented, or simply want to get them in trouble, please consider the irreparable damage you could be inflicting on the kids. A CPS investigation is an unpleasant and stressful situation for any child to have to endure needlessly.

Studies have proven over and over that children benefit from remaining with their families, even if the parents are struggling to provide or it is a troubled home. If you think the kids would be “better off” with another family, you’re probably wrong. The trauma a child experiences from separation from the family will likely negatively affect his or her life.

When researching this article, I was frustrated and angered by some of the reported reasons neighbors called CPS on families. There were reports of CPS being called for children spending too much time on the computer, having a messy (not unsanitary) house, taking kids out “too late,” older children being left home alone, and allowing a toddler to play outside in the sprinkler naked. At best, this is ignorance and at its worst, it is abuse of a system working to save kids in real danger.

Speak with the Parents

There is an obvious breakdown of community in neighborhoods in our country. It’s not uncommon for neighbors to live next to one another for years and have no contact. We live in a society where calling the police is often more comfortable and easier than knocking on someone’s door to talk to them about an issue.

Parents can be stressed, overwhelmed, seriously ill, or going through a difficult time. What may look concerning to a passerby, might actually be a solid family that is in desperate need of help to get through a rough patch. Befriending the family, establishing a relationship, and even offering to help with the children will benefit everyone, even if you find you have to report later.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some children are much older than they appear to be. Never call CPS based on an assumption. That child walking down the street, whom you think is only 4 years old, might actually be almost 7 (this is my child!). And that child you believe is far too young to be home alone might be a responsible 10-year- old. A friendly conversation with the parent or child can quickly dismiss or confirm your suspicions.

Talk to the Child

If it is appropriate for you to be talking to the child(ren) in question, there is no better way to find out if they are okay. Simply ask. If they are being hurt, they may have never felt safe enough to tell anyone.

However, don’t be surprised if they stay quiet. Abused and neglected children love their parents. Older children may understand that if they say anything, they could be taken away or their parents could get into trouble. Developing an appropriate relationship with the child(ren) may allow them to trust you and open up.

Ask a Mandated Reporter

If you are concerned about a child’s welfare, but you aren’t sure what to do, speak to a mandated reporter in your life for advice. Mandated reporters are people who are legally required to report abuse or neglect. Most mandated reporters have received training on what is considered abuse or neglect in your state and what warrants CPS intervention. Mandated reporters are typically teachers, doctors, foster parents, social workers, and counselors.

Trust Your Gut

If you have a strong feeling that a child is in danger, don’t ignore it. While calling CPS should not be done lightly, the reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect should be reported immediately. The sad fact is that you could be saving a child from years of abuse or even his life.

Situational Examples

Do not hesitate – Call 911

  • You witness a crime against a child
  • There is a real and immediate threat of harm to a child
  • A child tells you that s/he has just fled abuse
  • A young child is left unattended in a vehicle on a hot day
  • An intoxicated individual is driving with a child in the vehicle
  • A child is doing something that is a serious threat to himself or others
  • There is a domestic disturbance with a child in the home (laws vary by state)

Call Child Protective Services

  • A child presents you with worrisome wounds
  • A child tells you that s/he is being abused or neglected
  • A child is asking for food and appears to be malnourished
  • There is a child living in a home in unlivable/unsanitary condition
  • Young children are left home alone for long periods of time (age varies by state)
  • There is evidence of drug use and/or domestic violence in the home (laws vary by state)

Watch and wait (review steps above)

  • You have never seen the parents or a caregiver; only the children
  • A child appears to be seriously ill and does not seem to be getting better
  • You have an inkling of abuse/neglect, but wouldn’t call it reasonable suspicion
  • You witness a parent verbally abusing a child (laws vary by state)
  • A young child is left unattended in a vehicle with the windows open on a mild day
  • or with the windows closed on a cold day

Do not call CPS; speak with the parents or child(ren)

  • Children are often unsupervised and appear unkempt, but otherwise healthy
  • Healthy looking children come to your home asking for food or snacks
  • A child seems to always have a cold or a runny nose
  • Young children are often cared for by an older sibling
  • Young children are unsupervised outside near a road (go over immediately)
  • Older children seem to have freedom to come and go as they please
  • Children are out later than you think they should be
  • Children are playing in your yard
  • Children are annoying you