Be polite and know your rights.
Reasonable people can disagree about how much independence children should have and when they are ready for it. But many “child neglect” calls get made simply because someone sees a child alone. An investigation by law enforcement or child protection (or both) may ensue.
Let Grow and the U.S. Constitution (https://letgrow.org/legislative-toolkit –item 11) endorse the position that it is the parents’ right and duty to make decisions about their children’s welfare. But state and local authorities sometimes adopt practices that don’t respect these rights. That’s why parents need some guidelines on how to protect themselves in an investigation.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THESE GUIDELINES ARE NOT SPECIFIC LEGAL ADVICE.
Because these general guidelines may not apply to your case, it is best to get advice from your own attorney. If you need help finding one or understanding your local laws and policies, we can try to help you locate a lawyer in your area. Please use this form (link to form).
Meanwhile, Let Grow is working to change the laws and policies that stop parents from making sound decisions on behalf of their children. We have been actively engaged in 3-5 states each year and are making progress.
GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR RESPONDING TO QUESTIONING BY POLICE OR CHILD PROTECTION AUTHORITIES
1. Police and child protection authorities are required to respond to hotline and 911 calls. Whether or not the call was warranted, it is generally best to realize that the person responding to the call is “just doing their job.” Whoever made the call may be entitled to confidentiality as a matter of law. However, if you believe you have been the subject of a harassing call, you may wish to disclose this to the investigator.
2. You do not have to apologize for making a parenting decision you believe was reasonable. Neglect laws exist to protect children placed in obvious danger—not to stop them from having a normal childhood. Give the officer a few reasons why you believed your child was mature enough to be alone—remember, the officer doesn’t know your child and you do.
3. Try to stay calm and refrain from showing anger. Be careful not to escalate the concerns.
4. Treat the investigation seriously but realize that most investigations are closed without any findings, and no legal action. Whether or not they go any further will depend on many factors, including how much evidence the investigator gathers against you and your local office’s general practices in cases like yours.
5. Whether and how you respond to the authorities’ questions is your decision. A general rule is that you do not have any duty to answer questions, open your home, or provide documents to the police or child protection workers — unless the police show you a warrant or the caseworker shows you a court order. But another general rule is that it may be in your interest to cooperate by talking, opening your home, or providing documents.
6. To manage these conflicting guidelines (i.e., you don’t have to talk but at the same time it might be best to talk), you may want to get legal advice first. If you go ahead and talk to the police or caseworker:
a – Find out who is asking you to defend yourself. Is it a police officer? If so, from which department? Is it a child protection caseworker? If so, what department do they work in? Find out how to contact the officer or caseworker and their supervisor. Get their office address.
b – Ask, politely: What is the claim that is being made? Politely request notification in writing about the claims and your rights.
c – Ask for specifics as to what you are accused of. If you are told “abuse” or “neglect,” ask what type of abuse or neglect. Ask how you can look up that local law or policy.
d – If the official refuses to specify the accusations against you, it is probably best not to answer any more questions.
e – Try to have a neutral third party present during any questioning of you, your child, or any visit to your home. If you are told this is not allowed, you should contact an attorney and try to negotiate alternative ways the questioning may proceed.
f – Take notes promptly after the visit and keep notes whenever you call the officer or caseworker afterwards. Asking to tape an interview can be viewed as provocative and is generally not recommended, and states vary on whether taping is lawful.
g – Ask what information the officer or caseworker needs from you or will consider. If you are asked to sign consents for the officer or caseworker to get records (such as your own psychological records, your child’s medical records, family court records, school records), make sure you ask who will be contacted and what would happen if you do not consent. You may want to secure legal advice about whether release of these records is recommended in your specific situation.
h – After talking to the officer or caseworker, gather information in writing to show your child was safe and able to handle the situation, and that your parenting is reasonable. Submit that information to the investigating officer(s) while keeping copies for yourself.
i – Ask what the possible outcomes might be, including the time frames for any decisions.
j – Allowing visual (over-the-clothes) confirmation that your child is fine is, in general, reasonable. But should you allow officers to speak to your child? If you need to think this over, let the officer know that you will get back to them. Sometimes you will have to negotiate who will be present. If your child is photographed, searched or examined without your consent, you should strongly consider seeking legal advice as to how to respond.
k – Once you know the claims that are being investigated, and if there is a demand for more questioning of you or your child, consider getting a lawyer to handle further contacts. Some parents who think they are helping their case say too much or too little. A lawyer can help with what you say and how to say it. While most hotline calls end with an “unfounded” or “unsubstantiated” decision, and most police contacts do not lead to a criminal case being filed, you may want to have a lawyer available. If you work with children, this may be especially important as the outcome could have an impact on your license or job.