If a parent is abusing substances around a child, do you need to report it?
A number of mandated reporters may see signs of drug use around a child. From medical professionals who may treat a parent for substance use to volunteers who come into contact with kids during church activities or youth camps, you may hear stories from a child or see physical evidence that drug use is occurring in the home.
Discover your responsibilities for reporting suspected substance abuse around children, what are the situations where you need to step in, and how to file a report when a caregiver’s actions are putting a child at risk.
Drug Use Around a Child: Is it Abuse?
Guidelines for what a mandated reporter needs to pay attention to when looking for signs of child abuse and neglect vary from state to state. Parental substance abuse is typically included in that definition of abuse, especially in the following circumstances:
- Exposure to substances prenatally
- Caregiver use of a controlled substance that impairs their ability to care for a child
- Exposing a child to illegal drug activity
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act requires states to operate programs relating to child abuse and neglect that include policies, procedures, and development of plans for safe care of the infant being affected by substance use, withdrawal symptoms, or fetal alcohol syndrome.
Many states require reporting of substance-exposed newborns, and approximately 26 States and the District of Columbia specifically require healthcare providers to report when they treat infants who show evidence at birth of having been exposed to drugs, alcohol, or other controlled substances. In 23 States and the District of Columbia, prenatal exposure to controlled substances is considered child abuse or neglect.
Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wisconsin require mandated reporters to report when they suspect a pregnant woman is abusing substances.
In Rhode Island, a report of substance abuse by a pregnant woman can be made only if there is an allegation of abuse and/or neglect of the newborn or other children in the home.
Children Exposed to Parental Substance Use
As a growing issue within the United States, many states have responded to this problem by expanding civil definitions of child abuse or neglect to include this concern. Specific circumstances that are considered child abuse or neglect in some States include the following:
- Manufacturing a controlled substance in the presence of a child or on premises occupied by a child
- Exposing a child to or allowing a child to be present where chemicals or equipment for the manufacture of controlled substances are used or stored
- Selling, distributing, or giving drugs or alcohol to a child
- Using a controlled substance that impairs the caregiver’s ability to adequately care for the child
- Exposing a child to the criminal sale or distribution of drugs
Many States address the issue of exposing children to illegal drug activity in their criminal statutes. This can be considered a felony, depending on the state.
How to Report
Each state has its own legal requirements for how, when, and where to make a report. Your State’s Child Protective Services department is a good place to start when determining your reporting requirements. Mandated reporter training can also help you understand your legal requirements for reporting.
In California, the responsibilities of mandated reporters are defined under CANRA.
The California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting ACT (CANRA) states that child abuse must be reported when one who is a legally mandated reporter “…has knowledge of or observes a child in his or her professional capacity, or within the scope of his or her employment whom he or she knows or reasonably suspects has been the victim of child abuse or neglect…” (PC 11166[a]).
“Reasonable suspicion” occurs when “it is objectively reasonable for a person to entertain such a suspicion based upon facts that could cause a reasonable person in a like position, drawing when appropriate on his or her training and experience, to suspect child abuse” (PC 11166[a]).
In short, if you suspect, you report.
When Should a Report be Made?
Reports must be made immediately, or as soon as practically possible, by phone. A written report must be forwarded within 36 hours of receiving the information regarding the incident. The written report must be submitted on a Department of Justice form. Forms may also be obtained from your local police or sheriff’s department (not including a school district police officer or security department) or a county welfare department.
Any legally defined mandated reporter or permissive reporter (a person who is not legally required to report but elects to report when concerned about a child) should make a report when they suspect child abuse or neglect.
When two or more mandated reporters are aware of suspected child abuse or neglect, a single report may be made by a selected member of the reporting team. Any reporting team member who knows that the designated person has failed to report must do so themselves.
Penalties for Failing to Report
In many states, failing to report suspected child abuse or neglect (including substance abuse involving children) can be a crime.
In California, a person who fails to make a required report is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in county jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine. They may also be found civilly liable for damages, especially if the child–victim or another child is further victimized because of the failure to report. Laws also state that “any mandated reporter who willfully fails to report abuse or neglect, or any person who impedes or inhibits a report of abuse or neglect… where that abuse or neglect results in death or great bodily injury, shall be punished by not more than one year in a county jail, by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.”
The role of a mandated reporter is pivotal in protecting children from abuse and neglect, especially in cases related to parental substance abuse. The regulations may differ across states, but the principle remains the same: if there is reasonable suspicion of a child’s exposure to such harm, it must be reported. The process is not just a legal obligation but a moral one as well, with severe penalties for non-compliance. It’s critical for professionals to remain informed and proactive in their duties to ensure that young and vulnerable members of society receive the protection they deserve.