If you believe a child has been abused, raped, or sexually assaulted in Louisiana and your local police department is unwilling or unable to help, what do you do? Under state law, you have a number of options to help ensure the safety of the child and pursue justice.
Beyond Criminal Laws: The Louisiana Children’s Code
The Louisiana Children’s Code of 1992 provides specific definitions of child abuse and neglect, gives authority to the courts to intervene in hazardous situations, and creates an organizational structure for reporting and investigating abuse and neglect. Its intent is to protect children whose physical or mental health and welfare is significantly at risk due to physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment, or neglect by one or more individuals who are legally responsible for their care and protection. It is separate from the criminal code provisions that are designed to punish the responsible parties for their abusive acts; those investigations and prosecutions are the responsibility of law enforcement (police and prosecutors). Because of this distinction, even if local law enforcement cannot or will not investigate an allegedly abusive situation, the State still provides an avenue for concerned individuals to help protect at-risk youth.
Under the Children’s Code, the Louisiana courts are authorized to intervene between a parent or guardian and a minor to protect the health, general welfare, and safety of the child. Certain individuals, including health practitioners, mental health/social service practitioners, teaching or child care providers, police officers/law enforcement officials, and commercial film and photographic print processors, are required by the Children’s Code to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect. If more than one mandatory reporter witnesses or suspects abuse or neglect, each reporter should file a separate report detailing his or her observations. This will help provide investigators with as much information as possible.
Any other individual who is not a mandatory reporter who suspects abuse is also permitted to file a report (which may be done by calling DCFS directly at 1-855-4LA-KIDS (1-855-452-5437), toll-free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, or filling out a reporting form online). Every report is considered a request for an investigation into potentially harmful circumstances rather than an accusation or formal charge. Individuals who report in good faith are immune from prosecution and may remain anonymous; if they choose to give their names, that information remains confidential.
DCFS and Law Enforcement
The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is tasked under the law with receiving and investigating certain reports of abuse and neglect of children. Its jurisdiction involves abuse or neglect of minors by caregivers, parents, or other persons living in a home with the child. DCFS will review a report and sometimes additionally interview the reporter, determine whether the information meets the criteria of a report that it is legally authorized to investigate, and proceed accordingly. If a report involves a perpetrator who is legally defined as a caretaker, it is the responsibility of the state Child Protection Services department, within the Office of Community Services, to conduct the investigation.
If a report of abuse or neglect involves a perpetrator who is not a caretaker, parent, or other occupant of the child’s household, the responsibility of conducting the investigation will fall on local law enforcement. Children’s Code Article 610 requires DCFS to promptly communicate those cases to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Children’s Code Articles 509 and 510 require that reports involving a felony-level crime against a child shall be promptly communicated to the appropriate law enforcement authorities as part of the approved interagency protocols for multidisciplinary investigations of child abuse and neglect in each judicial district.
Big Problems, Big Picture
Human trafficking is a significant threat to children in Louisiana. If you suspect a child is being trafficked or abused in conjunction with human trafficking, you have a variety of reporting options outside of your local police department. The National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH) works closely with service providers, law enforcement, and other professionals in Louisiana to respond to and investigate human trafficking cases, share information and resources, and otherwise assist victims and survivors of trafficking. Local, state, and federal agencies and community organizations cooperate in investigating and responding to human trafficking, including the Louisiana State Police, New Orleans police, ICE/Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), the Louisiana Department of Alcohol & Tobacco, and Crime Stoppers.
Civil Compensation for Child Abuse Victims
Sometimes, law enforcement agencies are unable to pursue charges against the perpetrators of child abuse due to a lack of evidence, expiration of the statute of limitations, or other technical issues. Sometimes, victims of child sexual abuse may be able to obtain justice through civil justice systems. Although a criminal conviction requires the state to meet a burden of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the burden for civil liability is lower—a plaintiff must only prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. Because of this, it is possible to find a defendant liable in a civil case even if a verdict of “not guilty” was rendered in a criminal case related to the abuse or the prosecutor determined there was not enough evidence to pursue a criminal case.
A civil lawsuit attempts to hold an individual or a third party legally liable for the injuries a plaintiff sustained as a result of the crime, either because they acted as a direct cause (i.e., a perpetrator of the abuse) or an indirect cause (e.g., an organization that knew of the danger and failed to protect the victim). A civil lawsuit can enable a victim and/or their family to recover monetary compensation from the party or parties responsible for the abuse, in addition to or instead of any criminal charges against a perpetrator. It can also help effect change in the policies of organizations that have neglected or failed to protect children from abuse.
Even in situations where law enforcement will not get involved, there are numerous options in Louisiana for individuals to help protect children from abuse and pursue justice for their suffering. An experienced attorney can help victims investigate and pursue all possible avenues to recover compensation for their injuries through the civil justice system.