Child Abuse Reporting Process: Q&A

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Note: this information is not meant to provide legal advice. Because laws and procedures vary by state, anyone working with young people should ascertain the specific laws that apply to them. 

When do you have to report suspected abuse and neglect?

The specific details vary by state, but according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a typical rule is that “a report must be made when the reporter, in his or her official capacity, suspects or has reasons to believe that a child has been abused or neglected.” Another common standard is that a report must be made when a reporter “has knowledge of, or observes a child being subjected to, conditions that would reasonably result in harm to the child.”

Can I report suspected abuse anonymously?

Again, this varies by state. In most states, reporting can be done anonymously, and many states maintain toll-free numbers for that purpose. However, 18 states require that reporters provide their names and contact information. In three states (Connecticut, Delaware and Washington), child protection officials may request the name of the reporter. 

What if the report is not substantiated?

Most reports of child abuse and neglect are not substantiated. For reports made in good faith, the reporter is often protected from civil or criminal penalties. However, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, 29 states have laws criminalizing false reporting of child abuse, if the reporter knew the report was false.

How can I contact the agency responsible for investigating suspected child abuse and neglect in my state?

The Child Information Gateway lists websites and toll-free reporting numbers, updated as of press time, July 2013: 


One of the difficulties in working to prevent child abuse and neglect, also called child maltreatment, is that there is no one standard  warning sign of child abuse and neglect:

The child:

• Sudden changes in behavior or school performance

• Medical or physical problems are not taken care of by the parent

• Unexplained burns, bites, bruises, etc.

• Expresses fear of parents, doesn’t want to go home

• Is frequently absent from school

• Is not dressed appropriately or is frequently dirty


The parent:

• Does not show concern for the child

• Offers unconvincing explanations for child’s injuries

• Speaks of the child in extremely negative terms, e.g., as “evil”

• Demands inappropriate levels of performance from the child

• Expects the child to provide care and attention to the parent, and to meet the parent’s emotional needs


The parent and child:

• Rarely look at or touch each other

• Have an entirely negative relationship

• Say they don’t like each other