How DHS Responds to Reports of Child Abuse

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid LSC Funded


What Is Child Abuse?

Often when people think about an act of child abuse, they think about a person either physically or sexually hurting a child.  While these acts can be child abuse, there are several other acts that are legally considered child abuse.  These acts may include but are not limited to:

  • Acts or omissions causing serious mental injury to a child, that cause the child to not perform within the normal age range;
  • Using illegal drugs in the presence of a child, resulting in the presence of the drug in the child’s body;
  • Manufacturing a dangerous substance in the presence of a child;
  • Knowingly allowing a sex offender unsupervised access to a child;
  • Knowingly giving a child obscene material;
  • Involving a child in prostitution;
  • Engaging in bestiality in the presence of a child; and
  • Denial of critical care.

“Knowingly” means that the caretaker or parent has actual knowledge of a certain fact.  For example, allowing a neighbor that the parent knows is a registered sex offender to babysit a child meets the definition of child abuse.  However, the situation may be different if the parent did not know that the neighbor was a registered sex offender.

What Is Denial of Critical Care?

Denial of critical care is one of the more common allegations that may result in DHS opening an investigation.  Denial of critical care is defined as “the failure on the part of a person responsible for the care of a child to provide for the adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical or mental health treatment, supervision, or other care necessary for the child's health and welfare when financially able to do so or when offered financial or other reasonable means to do so.”  A simpler way of stating this is to say that the parent or person responsible to care for the child is neglecting that child’s needs.  This can include acts such as failing to give a child prescribed medication, leaving a child unsupervised for an extended period of time or placing a child in a dangerous situation by engaging in violent behavior in front of a child.  Every situation is unique.  For example, leaving a twelve-year-old unattended a few hours will likely be viewed differently than leaving a three-year-old unattended for a few hours.


How does DHS respond to reports of child abuse?


When DHS receives a report of child abuse, they make an early decision whether to send the case down one of two paths: either the child abuse assessment path or the family assessment path.  The goals under both paths are the same: the primary goal is to protect the child and the secondary goal is to provide the necessary services to the family to address its needs.  One of the major changes is that family assessment cases do not end with a finding of child abuse and will not place the parent on the child abuse registry.  However, if at any time during the assessment the DHS worker determines the child is at risk, the case may immediately be switched from a family assessment to a child abuse assessment.

A Family Assessment:

DHS uses this process to respond to reports of child abuse alleging denial of critical care but where there is no immediate risk of danger, death or injury to a child. One example of this kind of case could be an elementary school-aged child who is currently with a caretaker but may have been left unsupervised some time before. Another example could be a young child who walked to school in freezing temperatures without a coat. That child is now in a warm building and has been given a coat for the way home. These types of cases may cause concern that a child's needs aren't being met. Since there is no immediate harm to the child at the point the report is made, these types of cases would probably start on the family assessment path.

In a family assessment case, DHS must begin the assessment within 72 hours of receiving the report.  The assessment is an investigation into the safety of the child and any risk of harm to the child.  It also includes an evaluation of the child’s home environment.  The worker will also consider the well-being of any other children living in the home.  The assessment may also include a visit to the child’s school. 

After DHS completes the assessment, the worker will set out the strengths and needs of the child and family.  DHS will then provide a list of services available to meet these needs and offer services to the family.  Services may include counseling for the child, substance abuse treatment for a parent or assistance with applying for food assistance or related programs such as The Family Investment Plan (FIP).  These services are offered on a voluntary basis, meaning the family does not have to actually participate in them.  However, if the family refuses to accept the offered service and DHS determines that as a result the child is at risk, the case will be switched from a family assessment to a child abuse assessment.

A Child Abuse Assessment:

This is the process that DHS uses to respond to accepted reports of child abuse alleging non-accidental physical injury, sexual abuse, and other acts, including denial of critical care if there is a risk of imminent danger, death or injury to the child.

DHS must begin a child abuse assessment within 24 hours of receiving the report.  Then the investigation is similar to the family assessment process.  The primary difference between the family assessment and the child abuse assessment are the outcomes. 

In a child abuse assessment, DHS will decide if child abuse happened.  If DHS determines the abuse is “founded,” then the person responsible will be placed on the child abuse registry.  If DHS believes there is ongoing or future risk of abuse or neglect, it may refer a family for services or make community care referrals.  In serious cases, it may recommend opening a juvenile court case. 

Safety in the home is a basic necessity and is a priority for Iowa Legal Aid. These changes to the law are an important step to keep children safe, to strengthen families and to help people avoid being placed on the child abuse registry.

If you are having problems, you may wish to call Iowa Legal Aid.

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 
To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
apply online at
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.

*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.  

Last Review and Update: May 05, 2020