Zero Tolerance Initiative > Reporting Known or Suspected Cases of Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation


Any person who knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, that a person with a developmental disability is being abused, neglected, or exploited by a relative, caregiver, or household member or, in the case of self-neglect, by themselves, is required to report such knowledge or suspicion to the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE (or 1-800-962-2873).

Failure to report known or suspected cases of abuse, neglect, or exploitation is a crime. Not reporting child abuse, neglect, or abandonment (or preventing someone else from reporting) is classified as a third degree felony in Florida. Someone convicted of a third degree felony can be required to serve up to five years in prison. Not reporting cases of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of adults with developmental disabilities (or preventing someone else from reporting) is classified as a second degree misdemeanor (which can result in you serving up to 60 days in jail).

If you are a service provider, failure to report known or suspected abuse can also cause you to lose your job and/or face possible legal action. When in doubt, report it; it is always better to make a mistake on the side of caution. Reports should be made even if the incident happened a long time ago or took place in a school.

How to Report Abuse, Neglect, or Exploitation

If you know or suspect that a person with a developmental disability is being abused, neglected, or exploited by a relative, caregiver, or household member then you should do the following immediately:

Call the Florida Abuse Hotline, which is a nationwide, toll-free telephone number, at 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873), or send a faxed statement to the Abuse Hotline's statewide toll-free fax number, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1-800-914-0004), or e-mail http://www.dcf.state.fl.us/abuse/report/

Note: If you know about a situation in which the life of a person with a developmental disability is in immediate danger due to abuse, neglect, or exploitation, you should call 911 before calling anyone else.

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Information That May be Requested by the Florida Abuse Hotline

Hotline operators may request the following information:

  • Name, age, sex, physical description, and location of each victim alleged to have been abused, neglected, or exploited
  • Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of each alleged perpetrator
  • Name, address, and telephone number of the person reporting the alleged abuse, neglect, or exploitation
  • Description of the physical or psychological injuries sustained
  • Actions taken by the reporter, if any, such as notification of the police

NOTE: It is important that you do not delay calling the Hotline until you have all of the above information. Instead, call the Hotline with whatever information you may have in order to protect persons with developmental disabilities from continued abuse, neglect, or exploitation.

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What Happens After a Hotline Call is Made?

When a call is received by the Florida Abuse Hotline, hotline staff must first determine if the situation described is something that state law allows them to investigate (such as allegations involving the abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a child or vulnerable adult by a relative, caregiver, or household member).

Sometimes, a report cannot be taken by the Florida Abuse Hotline because it does not involve an allegation of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a child or a vulnerable adult by their caregiver. In those situations, Hotline staff can still assist callers by providing them with information and arranging referrals to other agencies (such as law enforcement) as necessary.

When a report is made to the Florida Abuse Hotline, that information is used to assess the risk to the victim and determine findings. All information obtained during an investigation is confidential but can also be used as evidence in any court proceedings that may take place.

The Department of Children & Families (DCF) is required to conduct an investigation of all abuse reports received and accepted in order to determine if there is evidence that someone has been abused, neglected or exploited, and to see if assistance is necessary to protect the individual's health and safety.

Within 24 hours of receiving a report, a protective investigator makes face-to-face contact with the alleged victim. If access to the alleged victim is refused to the protective investigator, law enforcement may be called to assist.

Once access is gained, the investigator will interview those involved, evaluate the information obtained, and make a decision as to whether the reported allegations did or did not occur.

If a victim is determined to be at risk and will not be safe remaining in his/her present environment, the investigator may place the victim in a more suitable living arrangement such as that of the home of a relative or friend or another licensed residential placement.

As long as victims are capable of making their own decisions, they must request or consent to placement before it can occur. If victims are not capable of making this decision, they may be removed by the investigator and placed in a safer environment, but the investigator must petition the court for a hearing within 24 hours of removal so the court may decide if continued placement is necessary. The people who have a right to be present at any hearing include the victim of a report, the victim's spouse, guardian, legal counsel, adult children and next of kin.

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What happens if the hotline does not accept the call?

If you believe that your call should have been accepted and/or that the hotline operator did not handle the call properly, please call the hotline back and ask to speak to a supervisor to explain the situation.

Calls not accepted by the hotline (because the allegation does not involve abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a child or vulnerable adult by a caregiver) will automatically be transferred by hotline staff to the local police.

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Other People to Call

Direct service providers should report knowledge or suspicion of abuse, neglect, or exploitation to their supervisors who may be required to report this information to the local APD office (in accordance with established APD reporting procedures).

Note: While supervisors may contact the Abuse hotline along with the direct service provider who witnessed an incident, provider agencies may not require their employees to first report such information to them before permitting those employees to contact the Abuse Hotline. Preventing someone from contacting the hotline to report a known or suspected case of abuse, neglect, or exploitation is a crime in Florida.

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Barriers to Reporting

Persons with developmental disabilities may fail to report abuse, neglect, or exploitation for the following reasons:

  • Victims refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem
  • Persons with disabilities are often taught to be compliant and passive and are sometimes unable to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate physical contact
  • Persons with disabilities may feel their report of abuse would not be believed
  • Physical/cognitive impairments make it difficult for the victim to seek help
  • Most augmentative communication systems (such as communication or picture boards used by people who cannot speak) are not programmed to report abuse, neglect or exploitation
  • Victims do not know where to turn for help, and they are often isolated
  • Victims are, or perceive themselves to be, financially or otherwise dependent on the abuser for their needs; abuser tells victim they will lose everything if anyone is told
  • Victims fear loss of a caregiver, even an abusing caregiver; they are fearful that the solution to the problem is more negative or frightening than the problem itself; they are fearful they will be forced to leave their current families or homes. Persons with disabilities may be more easily coerced with or threatened by the withholding of needed care or equipment

Return to Reporting Known or Suspected Cases of Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation

Economic Barriers

There are also economic issues to consider as well in understanding why some individuals with disabilities choose to remain in harmful situations.

Unemployment, low wages, and poverty compound the problem of violence and abuse for all people, including people with disabilities. Lack of financial resources limits the options to get out of abusive or potentially abusive relationships and situations. People with disabilities may have no realistic option other than to continue to employ an abusive care provider, stay with an abusive partner, or live with an abusive family member.¹

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…and still more barriers

People sometimes fail to report abuse, neglect, and exploitation of people with developmental disabilities because:

  • There is a general lack of understanding or awareness of the high rate of these types of crimes
  • People, including professionals and law enforcement, often do not recognize abuse of persons with disabilities when they see it; they are often quick to dismiss the visible signs of abuse by saying it was probably caused by the personís disability
  • Most people assume that no person would be capable of committing certain crimes against persons with disabilities
  • Because they havenít seen actual physical abuse, they may not believe a problem exists
  • People fear financial or legal liability and retaliation if they report suspected abuse
  • Many people have the mistaken idea that their actions will not make a difference in cases of abuse, neglect, or exploitation

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Client on Client Abuse

Sexual assault or any type of injury-causing physical altercation (such as punching, stabbing, choking, or hitting someone with a heavy object resulting in injury) which takes place between two individuals with developmental disabilities should be reported immediately to the Florida Abuse Hotline.

In addition, service providers must also report the incident immediately to their supervisor as well as the local APD office to ensure the continued health and safety of the individuals involved.

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Capacity to Consent

It is not your job to determine whether or not someone with a developmental disability has the capacity to consent to sexual activity (either with another person with a disability or someone else).

DCF abuse investigators have a standard set of procedures they use for determining capacity to consent so it is important that you contact the abuse hotline whenever you become aware of sexual activity involving a person with a developmental disability and you suspect that sexual abuse has occurred.

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¹ Fitzsimons. Combating Violence and Abuse, 69.