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Five Terms You Need to Know if You’re Accused of Physical Child Abuse

If you’re accused of physically abusing a child, you may encounter any of these five terms.

1. Parental Right to Discipline

As a parent, you are legally entitled to discipline your children. The right to spank or otherwise physically discipline your child should not result in criminal responsibility for parents or guardians if:

  • the force is reasonable
  • the physical discipline is reasonably related to promoting the child’s welfare
  • the physical discipline does not cause lasting physical harm, humiliation of the child, or severe mental or physical distress

The parent-child relationship is protected by the constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment protects “the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”  The Supreme Court has held that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized.”

Reasonable physical discipline is within your rights as a parent.

2. Mandated Reporter

Some professionals have legal obligations to report known or suspected instances of child abuse. These mandated reporters include teachers and other school personnel, medical practitioners, dentists, social service providers, and some government workers who frequently interact with children. In Washington, this duty may extend to mandated reporters who suspect child abuse is occurring within their own families.

Failure to report if you are a mandated reporter can result in a gross misdemeanor.

Because mandated reporters face criminal penalties for failure to report, they are strongly motivated to report even when they are uncertain that abuse or neglect occurred.

3. Child Protective Services (CPS)

In Washington State, CPS is under the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). CPS investigations are triggered when someone concerned with a child’s health or safety makes a report to CPS.

While a CPS investigation into your family life can feel very threatening and upsetting, understanding some key points about the investigation process and your rights as a parent will help you to navigate this difficult time. How is a CPS investigation instigated? It starts with a report of suspected child abuse or neglect.

Once CPS has received a report, the agency must determine whether the reported conduct meets the legal definition of child abuse or neglect. Reports that may signal physical or sexual abuse will typically be assigned for investigation. If CPS determines that the report does not constitute child abuse or neglect, then CPS does not have the authority to investigate. In this instance, the report becomes an “Information Only” referral.

Unless CPS determines the report should become an Information Only referral, the agency must look into your case to decide whether the allegations are true. But the involvement of CPS with your family does not necessarily mean that CPS will find that child abuse has occurred in your home.

4. Domestic Violence Protection Order

A domestic violence protection order is a civil order from the court that prohibits certain conduct.

A protection order CAN:

  • order you not to enter the family residence
  • give one parent temporary custody of the children
  • set a child visitation schedule
  • order you to leave a shared residence
  • order you to attend counseling

A protection order CANNOT:

  • order child support
  • order maintenance
  • establish permanent child custody or use of a shared residence

Often a temporary order (good for 14 days) will be issued. At a hearing (usually set for the 14th day) the court will decide if the order should be made effective for one year or longer.

5. Supervised Visitation

If the court orders supervised visitation, your visits with your children must take place under the supervision of a designated adult.  This arrangement is not necessarily permanent.  Supervised visitation orders can be lifted and custody plans can be modified if you are able to prove to the court that there is no risk of future abuse, and that normal visitation without supervision is in your child’s best interest.

You are not alone. Help is available.

Hire an experienced defense attorney to represent you as soon as possible. The Marshall Defense Firm has handled many child abuse cases, vigorously representing clients to secure fair and just results in these sensitive and emotional cases. If you face child abuse allegations in Washington State, contact us at 206.826.1400 or for an appointment.

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