When and How Child Abuse and Neglect Investigations Can Turn Into Criminal Charges
Child abuse and neglect investigations are serious. They can lead to the State, through DCF (Department of Children and Families), taking action in a family's life, which could be the removal of children from their parents. Investigations can also lead to DCF administrative sanctions, such as substantiations and registry placements, regardless of whether the person investigated is a parent. An investigation can also start with DCF and lead to a criminal investigation which can then lead to criminal charges and the potential for jail. Often, child abuse and neglect investigations occur simultaneously by both the police and DCF.
What are child abuse and neglect?
Connecticut statutes define an abused child as one "who A) has been inflicted with physical injury or injuries other than by accidental means, (B) has injuries that are at variance with the history given of them, or (C) is in a condition that is the result of maltreatment, including, but not limited to, malnutrition, sexual molestation or exploitation, deprivation of necessities, emotional maltreatment or cruel punishment."
The statutes define a neglected child as one who, "for reasons other than being impoverished, (A) has been abandoned, (B) is being denied proper care and attention, physically, educationally, emotionally or morally, or (C) is being permitted to live under conditions, circumstances or associations injurious to the well-being of the child." An "uncared for" child is one (A) who is homeless, (B) whose home cannot provide the specialized care that the physical, emotional or mental condition of the child requires, or (C) who has been identified as a victim of trafficking, as defined in section 46a-170.
It is important to note that those are not criminal definitions or charges. They are statuses. That does not mean that one cannot be charged criminally for abusing a child. Conduct that could subject a child to abuse or neglect may fit one or more criminal statutes.
Criminal Offenses That Can Be Used to Prosecute Abusive or Neglectful Actions
Connecticut does not have a specific criminal charge called Child Abuse or Neglect. We have Risk of Injury to a Minor, which is a C or D level felony depending ont the circumstances, and encompasses many types of conduct and actions that could endanger a child.
Assault in any degree can be used for an intentional or reckless physical injury to a child. Physical discipline using an instrument, such as a switch or a belt for instance, can rise to Assault 2nd, which is a felony. Additionally, Disorderly Conduct, Breach of Peace and Reckless Endangerment can possibly be used.
Sexual Abuse can be criminally prosecuted under one of several sexual assault statutes, as well as Risk of Injury and other statutes. Sexual assault charges expose a person not just to criminal consequences (conviction, jail, probation, etc.), but potentially mandatory jail time and sex offender registration requirements.
There are also statutes that criminalize specific acts of child endangerment, such as leaving a child unattended in a car or not properly using a child car seat.
Communication Between the Police and DCF
Although DCF and a police department are separate entitites, they often communicate and could cooperate in investigations concerning children. Most DCF investigations come from mandated reporters, who are individuals required by law to report possible child abuse and neglect to DCF. Police officers and law enforcement personnel are one of the many categories of mandated reporters. Police file what is called a DCF-136 form when they suspect child endangerment. It could be for direct endangerment (e.g. injuries) or being around other criminal activity, such as a domestic violence or drug arrest even if the child is not directly harmed.
Investigations can also start with DCF, who then notifies the police. DCF has its own form, DCF-737, to report sexual abuse or severe physical abuse or neglect to the police. The police can then open a criminal investigation which may lead to an arrest and charges. Consider this example: a school official suspects physical abuse of a student and notifies DCF. DCF starts an investigation, suspects serious physical abuse and contacts the police department that has jurisdiction. The police then open an investigation. The person accused of the abuse can be arrested and charged with Assault and Risk of Injury. If that person is a parent, he or she would likely have juvenile court involvement with a neglect or abuse petition, which carries the possibility of removal. Then there's a possible substantiation and registry requirement. There's also the possibility of a person who is not a parent or guardian being a accused of physical or sexual abuse. He or she would not have juvenile court involvement but can be substantiated and placed on the registry, and can also be arrested.
Handling Child Abuse and Neglect Investigations
With both police and DCF personnel investigating, it is important, if not a necessity, to hire an attorney to handle the investigation as soon you become aware of it. An attorney can inform you of your rights and assert them, as well as be a go-between to both the police and DCF and, when necessary, represent you in court and administrative proceedings.
I have represented numerous clients in matters involving both DCF and criminal matters, ranging from neglect to physical and sexual abuse. I have had DCF close investigations without further involvement. In cases that led to arrests, my clients and I navigated both areas.
If you are being investigated by the police, DCF or any other authority concerning abuse or neglect to a child, contact me immediately to discuss your case.