When should you call CPS on someone?

Jan 9, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. ET

Deciding to call Child Protective Services on an acquaintance, friend or family member is a really difficult choice to make. There are guidelines, however, that can help you make this decision.

Concerned woman on the phone

Each state has its own version of Child Protective Services, commonly referred to as CPS. But each department has the same goal — investigating reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation — and if they find evidence of these crimes, they step in and take measures to help the victims and prosecute those responsible.

CPS comes up in the news on occasion, however, for either not doing enough and the unthinkable happens, or doing too much and a child and her family are needlessly separated. How, then, do you know that reporting someone to CPS is the right thing to do?

Look for clues

Rayne Golay, mental health counselor, children’s advocate and award-winning author of a newly-published novel, The Wooden Chair, said that there are nonverbal cues that both caregivers and children give off that can indicate that a relationship isn’t a proper, nurturing one. Cringing, hiding and raising an arm defensively are warning signs that shouldn’t be ignored. There are also behavioral signals children give off when they are suffering from abuse or neglect, such as becoming withdrawn, experiencing a loss of appetite or suddenly doing poorly at school. Here is an excellent resource that can help you determine if abuse or neglect is taking place.

Dos and don’ts

Many times, those on the outside looking in don’t act because they worry about offending someone or causing another family undue stress that they don’t deserve. Also, most people assume the best of others — you don’t really want to think that people can treat their children this way. You don’t have to have concrete evidence, however, and some states actually have laws that require you to report suspected abuse or neglect. “We’re all very aware of child abuse and neglect, but still, most people continue to hang back and say or do nothing when they have concerns,” said Golay. “This is not acceptable. We all have a duty to keep our children safe.”

Don’t, however, call CPS if you don’t sincerely suspect abuse or neglect. Calling in a report is something that should be taken very seriously and never done out of spite.

Keep in mind that most states allow you to report a family to CPS anonymously, but even if you don’t stay anonymous, your name is typically not released to the family involved (check with your individual state laws). Most often, your name and contact information are retained so investigators can obtain additional details if needed. Of course, if there is an unfolding emergency, phone 911 or your local emergency number.

Best interests

If needed, you can phone Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) before filing a report. These counselors can help with the situation you’re experiencing and provide resources. Keep in mind that CPS is designed to operate with the child’s best interests in mind. Golay and other experts feel that it’s better to report your suspicions and there be no issues than to not report and miss out on helping a child who really needs it.

More on child abuse

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Signs of child abuse and neglect