Being a good neighbor goes beyond keeping your lawn trimmed and your sidewalk clean. To truly care for your community, you also need to advocate for the safety of its kids.
More than 1 million children in the United States are victims of child abuse and neglect each year, according to state child protective service agencies. Many of them may not receive the help they need because of the hesitancy people feel to pick up the phone and call the proper authorities.
Florida requires any person who suspects a child has been abused to report it or face a third-degree felony charge, which is punishable by up to five years in prison, five years of probation and a $5,000 fine.
“In Florida, every adult is a mandatory reporter,” said Jennifer Andrews, DO, fellow with the UF Health Jacksonville Child Protection Team and medical staff member at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. “That’s important for people to know because it raises their level of responsibility, especially if they see something very concerning.”
What to look for
According to Dr. Andrews, many cases of child abuse don’t have overt physical signs, which makes it difficult for the average person to know exactly what to look for. Some things you might notice that would warrant reporting include:
- Bruises on children who are not mobile
- Bruises in spots not associated with common injuries, like the buttocks, cheeks, back and thighs
- Injuries on both sides of a child’s body
- Injuries in patterns, such as belt marks or handprints
“If there are physical injuries, signs of certain types of neglect, or if the child gets admitted to the hospital, that’s when the Child Protection Team gets involved,” Dr. Andrews said.
How to report
In Florida, there are two ways to make a report of suspected child abuse:
The Florida Abuse Hotline accepts reports of known or suspected child abuse, neglect or abandonment, around the clock. The hotline also accepts reports of abuse of vulnerable adults.
Callers remain anonymous and all reports, including those made online, are kept confidential, Dr. Andrews said.
What happens next?
A person only needs to have concerns to make a report, not confirmation that child abuse has taken place.
“Florida law defines abuse as a willful act or threatened act that can result in risk of harm,” Dr. Andrews added. “If you think someone is doing something that can hurt a child, that’s your margin to report.”
After a report is filed, it gets assigned to a specially trained child protection investigator who will make contact with the child, often at school or away from his or her parents. Part of the investigation also involves talking to others who interact with the child, like neighbors or relatives.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of child abuse reports don’t result in the automatic removal of a child from the home.
“I always remind people that just because investigators are called out, it doesn’t have to result in a punitive outcome,” Dr. Andrews said. “The Florida Department of Children and Families serves as a gateway to a lot of community resources that can be very beneficial to a family, including parenting classes, substance abuse treatment, or even vouchers for daycare. The main goal is to keep families together safely.”
We know parenting can be a challenge. Wolfson Children's Hospital has resources and tips to encourage Positive Parenting, broken down by the child's age. Additionally, THE PLAYERS Center for Child Health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital provides advice to guide you in the right direction. For more information, call 904.202.WELL (9355).