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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 20, No. 3
July 2015

Emotional Abuse in North Carolina

North Carolina's Juvenile Code [G.S. 7B-101(1)] defines emotional abuse as something that occurs when a parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker of a juvenile less than 18 years of age creates or allows to be created serious emotional damage to the juvenile. This serious emotional damage is evidenced by the juvenile's severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior toward himself, herself, or others.

Based on this definition, to confirm (i.e., substantiate) emotional abuse a child welfare agency must conclude that emotional damage experienced by a child is the result of a parent's action or inaction. If the child of an apparently emotionally abusive parent appears in all respects to be happy, productive, and well-adjusted, within their own cultural norms, a child protective intervention is not called for.

North Carolina has developed policy to guide county DSS agencies' practice related to emotional abuse. Although it is mentioned specifically in several places, the most extensive discussion of emotional abuse can be found in CPS intake policy, which is used to decide whether reports alleging emotional abuse meet the statutory definition required for a CPS response. This policy includes a detailed decision tree to assist with reports alleging emotional abuse.

If a report for emotional abuse is accepted, county DSS agencies must respond with the CPS investigative assessment response. Anecdotal reports from county DSS agencies suggest that investigative assessments of possible emotional abuse can often take much longer than usual and require extensive gathering of information from collaterals.

Because the signs of emotional harm can have many causes, substantiating emotional abuse in North Carolina can be difficult. Reaching a finding of emotional abuse ultimately depends on professionals outside of DSS, typically mental health or medical professionals. Counties working with families where emotional abuse is suspected have access to a free resource, the Child/Family Evaluation Program, to help them determine whether a child's symptoms are the result of emotionally abusive parenting. (For more on this program, click here.)

If emotional abuse is substantiated, perpetrators are given an opportunity for a hearing, after which their names are placed on the Responsible Individuals List (RIL).

Given the narrow way that it is defined in statute, it's not surprising that substantiated instances of emotional abuse in our state are fairly rare. For example, during calendar year 2013, North Carolina's 100 county DSS agencies accepted 735 reports of emotional abuse; of these, 128 were substantiated (Duncan, 2015). For more North Carolina-specific data on emotional abuse, see the next article.

Practice Tips
Know your legal definitions and NC policy so you can be effective when screening CPS reports and conducting investigative assessments. This will help you avoid petitions that can't be proven or are in violation of case law.

Avoid tunnel vision. If you get a report about one form of maltreatment, be open to the possibility that emotional abuse may also be present. For example, it has been known to co-exist with physical abuse, sexual abuse, and gross neglect.

Have realistic expectations for how long things will take. Because you must establish that a pattern of parental behavior is causing harm to the child, extensive information gathering and collaborating with outside experts is often needed. And because emotional abuse is a chronic pattern, it can take families time to learn new, healthier patterns.

Use the CFEP as needed. NC policy requires agencies to use the Child Medical Evaluation Program / Child /Family Evaluation Program, as appropriate, in the assessment of alleged victims of emotional abuse. As the case example in this issue suggests, the CFEP can be quite helpful.

For more tips see this issue's interview with Nancy Berson.

References for this and other articles in this issue