Accusations of child abuse are charges of sexual, physical, or psychological abuse or neglect of a child (by a parent or caregiver) that cause harm to a child's health, welfare or safety. Accusations can be made to the police or to a state's child protective services agency. A person accused of child abuse may face criminal charges, and the child may be removed from the home and placed in protective custody.

How child abuse allegations are made and evaluated in Washington State

Every state has laws that guide the assessment and evaluation of reports of child abuse. In Washington, people can report suspected child abuse cases to Child Protective Services (CPS) or the police. A report can be made in person or over the phone and should be made within 48 hours of identifying reasonable signs of abuse or neglect. CPS must report cases of alleged sexual abuse, physical injury, or death of a child to the police immediately. In emergency cases, where the child's welfare is in danger, the police must be notified within 24 hours. In all other cases, the police should be involved within 72 hours.

The police conduct a criminal investigation against the accused, while CPS investigates the family situation. If a police officer judges that a child is in danger, the officer can place the child in protective custody. CPS takes custody and places the child with a relative or in foster care. Protective custody can last no more than 72 hours, except by court order.

If the case meets state guidelines criteria for child abuse, CPS conducts a family assessment. A CPS caseworker identifies the family's problems, risks, needs, and strengths and creates a plan for treatment or intervention. If a child's removal from the home is a consideration, CPS presents its findings at a hearing.

If you are accused of child abuse

It's critical to consult a lawyer immediately if you are accused of child abuse. Because anything you say to police may be used against you, you can exert your right to get legal counsel before answering any questions.

Child abuse allegations have a significant emotional component. Often, it may seem in court as if it's up to the accused to prove his or her innocence. There may be many issues and many expert witnesses brought into play. The child may also testify, which could have its own complications. If you are falsely accused of child abuse, knowing the relevant research and data is crucial. An experienced lawyer can be extremely helpful if you go to court.

Additional resources:

Child Welfare Information Gateway: State Statute Results-Washington

Child Welfare Information Gateway: A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect

Washington State Department of Social and Health Services: What Happens Once Abuse & Neglect is Reported?

National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center

Washington State Legislature Child Abuse laws

Child Welfare Information Gateway: Information on the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act

Related Legal Guides:

The Basics of Child Abuse