Pennsylvania ChildLine Child Abuse Definitions– What Is Abuse and What Is Not

If you face a Pennsylvania ChildLine investigation, you know that you don't want to have your name end up in the ChildLine abuse registry. You know that you don't want to suffer all the ChildLine abuse registry consequences like the loss of child custody or visitation, job loss if you work with children, and maybe even criminal charges. Criminal charges require a much higher proof standard than a ChildLine complaint, investigation, and intervention. But in the worst case, criminal charges could result, along with your ChildLine abuse registration, loss of child custody or visitation, and job loss.

But to avoid those consequences, you need to know whether ChildLine investigators could find that you committed abuse. You need to know ChildLine's abuse definition. Read this ChildLine law summary for that definition. And retain the Lento Law Firm's premier Criminal Defense Team and Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento for the skills and experience to help you achieve the best possible outcome in your ChildLine matter. Call 888.535.3686 or go online now.

Why ChildLine's Abuse Definition Is Important

When you learn of a Pennsylvania ChildLine investigation against you over suspected child abuse, your first thought may be what you could possibly have done that would have constituted child abuse. You may have some idea of who alleged abuse. Or you may have some idea of what accident, injury, or event involving your child may have triggered abuse suspicions. But no matter the author or origin of those abuse suspicions, your primary concern may be how Pennsylvania ChildLine law defines abuse. You have at least two very good reasons to know ChildLine's abuse definition. First, appreciate those reasons why ChildLine's abuse definition is important before learning more about the definition.

Your Defense Depends on ChildLine's Abuse Definition

The first reason why ChildLine's abuse definition is important to you when you face a ChildLine abuse investigation is that you need a clear view of the risks to you of your ChildLine proceeding. From that clear understanding, you and the Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team will know how to defend it. You need to know just how serious your ChildLine investigation is, including the likelihood that you could end up in the ChildLine abuse registry. That answer will help you give your ChildLine defense the priority, resources, and attention it deserves. You will know more about what your retained Lento Law Firm attorney will be investigating and hoping to confirm or refute with your critical assistance. You've got to know something of the law if you are going to help the Lento Law Firm Team make your strongest defense to ChildLine abuse charges.

Your Case's Outcome Depends on the Abuse Definition

Another reason you need to know ChildLine's abuse definition is that the outcome of your ChildLine matter largely depends on that definition. When someone suspecting child abuse, often a mandated reporter, calls the ChildLine toll-free number or makes a report through the state's Child Welfare Portal, the call center promptly passes the report on to your local county office for assignment of an investigator, also known as a caseworker. Mandated reporters include teachers, law enforcement officers, and healthcare providers. The assigned caseworker will make a prompt visit to the child's home, as 55 Pa. Cons. Stat. Section 3490.55 requires, to gather and assess evidence of abuse. The same statute also requires the investigator to record abuse findings in writing and photograph the child's injuries, if any. The investigator's report will then determine whether the abuse complaint is "indicated," "founded," or "unfounded." All these steps, from gathering and recording abuse evidence to determining investigation results, depend on ChildLine's abuse definition.

The Several Parts of ChildLine's Abuse Definition

To know ChildLine's abuse definition, you need to know each of its several parts. You can't simply read a single abuse definition. The ChildLine abuse definition is much more complex. Statute 23 Pa. Stat. Section 6303 spreads ChildLine's abuse definition around several parts, even referring to other statutes. The statute's definition starts with the suspect's required mental state, continues with a long list of abuse forms, and then limits those forms with a list of exclusions. Thus, for you to have committed child abuse, the caseworker must find evidence that you (1) had a certain mental state regarding your actions or omissions that (2) caused the child one of a long list of abuse harms but that (3) doesn't fall within an exclusion. Consider each of these three required parts, elements, or dimensions of ChildLine's complex abuse definition separately.

The Mental State Part of ChildLine's Abuse Definition

ChildLine's abuse definition appearing in 23 Pa. Stat. Section 6303(b.1) begins with the suspect's required mental state. The first part of the abuse definition defines not the injury to the child but the mental state of the suspect alleged to have injured the child. Under this section, the child abuse suspect must have "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly" done at least one of a long list of abusive actions. Although the tendency may be to focus on the list of abusive actions, those actions do not constitute child abuse if the suspect did not have the required mental state of intent, knowledge, or recklessness. Thus, start with your mental state when evaluating whether the caseworker might find evidence of your child abuse.

The Definition of Intentionally

Section 6303 defines those three alternative mental state terms by referring to another statute. According to Section 6303(a), intentionally "has the same meaning as provided in 18 Pa.C.S. §302 (relating to general requirements of culpability)." If one looks up 18 Pa.C.S. §302, one finds that a suspect acts intentionally in either one of two ways. If the element involves the nature of the suspect's conduct or its result, "intentionally" means that it is the suspect's "conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result." This alternative definition of "intentionally" would apply if the allegation is that you abused a child. Examples of intentional abuse, where your conscious object was to cause the result, might thus include if you:

  • maliciously struck a child with your fist or deliberately swung an object specifically to hit, hurt, harm, and injure the child;
  • deliberately placed a child in an endangering location such as near an open flame, in a roadway, or near a cliff specifically to cause the child fear, fright, and mental distress, and the child so suffered; or
  • sexually touched a child or required a child to look at sexual depictions with the conscious object of your sexual stimulation or gratification.

The same statute, 18 Pa.C.S. §302, uses a different definition for "intentionally" if the element involves the attendant circumstances. This alternative definition of "intentionally" would apply if the allegation is that you abused a child by some form of omission or neglect. A suspect would act "intentionally" in neglecting a child if the suspect "is aware of the existence of such circumstances or he believes or hopes that they exist." Examples of intentional abuse by omission or neglect might thus include if you:

  • placed a child with a person you knew had the desire and propensity to sexually abuse or exploit the child while you hoped that such abuse or exploitation would occur; or
  • locked and confined a child alone in a room, leaving the child unattended for an unreasonably extended period of time while aware that you had so confined the child who would naturally suffer fear, fright, and mental distress, and the child did.

The Definition of Knowingly

Keep in mind that any one of the three alternative states of mind "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly" would meet the mental state part of ChildLine's abuse definition. According to Section 6303(a), the second alternative state of mind, "knowingly," also bears "the same meaning as provided in 18 Pa.C.S. §302 (relating to general requirements of culpability)." If one looks up 18 Pa.C.S. §302, one finds that a suspect acts "knowingly" in either one of two ways. Section 302 holds that a suspect would have acted "knowingly" if the allegation involves the nature of his conduct or the attendant circumstances and the suspect was "aware that his conduct is of that nature or that such circumstances exist." Examples of this first form of knowing abuse or neglect might thus include if you:

  • did not consciously desire to strike a child but for other reasons nonetheless violently swung a bat, chain, or other article knowing that your actions would strike and injure the child, and your actions did; or
  • did not consciously desire to expose a child to an illegal methamphetamine laboratory operation but, for other reasons, nonetheless brought the child along to that location while aware that you were so exposing the child.

The same statute, 18 Pa.C.S. §302, uses a different definition for "knowingly" if the element involves a result of the suspect's conduct. In that case, the suspect would have acted "knowingly" if the suspect was "aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result." Examples of this second form of knowing abuse or neglect might thus include if you:

  • did not consciously desire to expose a child to serious physical neglect but nonetheless consciously failed to clothe, feed, or clean a child for an extended period while aware that the child was suffering serious physical neglect; or
  • did not consciously desire to have a child suffer sexual abuse or exploitation but nonetheless consciously left the child unsupervised with an individual you knew registered as a sexual offender, had the propensity to sexually abuse and exploit children, and then did abuse and exploit the child.

The Definition of Recklessly

According to Section 6303(a), the third alternative state of mind, "recklessly," also bears "the same meaning as provided in 18 Pa.C.S. §302 (relating to general requirements of culpability)." If one looks up 18 Pa.C.S. §302, one finds that a suspect "acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct." Section 302 continues that "the risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and intent of the actor's conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation." Thus, examples of recklessness might include if you:

  • confined an infant child unsupervised for an extended period in a room you knew to be highly dangerous because of drugs, medicines, spoiled foods, or other poisons that constituted a substantial unjustifiable ingestion risk to the infant that you consciously disregarded, resulting in the child's serious injury from ingesting those poisons; or
  • left an infant in a running motor vehicle in your closed garage for an extended period, consciously disregarding that the child could very well suffer serious injury or die from breathing exhaust fumes, and the child did suffer such injury.

The Child Injury Part of ChildLine's Child Abuse Definition

While your mental state is the first part or element of ChildLine's child abuse definition, your mental state won't matter if the child suffered no qualifying risk, harm, or injury. The second part of ChildLine's child abuse definition is that the child must have suffered one of the statute's long list of qualifying child injuries. That list, appearing in 23 Pa. Stat. Section 6303(b.1), is as follows, with attendant examples where necessary to illustrate:

  • Causing bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act. An example would be if you struck the child with a fist or stick purposely, intending that you injure the child maliciously, and in fact, your strikes caused the child bodily injury;
  • Fabricating, feigning or intentionally exaggerating or inducing a medical symptom or disease which results in a potentially harmful medical evaluation or treatment to the child through any recent act. An example would be if you deliberately lied to a child's pediatrician that the child had an impacted bowel, simply to induce the pediatrician to perform a rectal exam or other procedure on the child, knowing the child had no need for it;
  • Causing or substantially contributing to serious mental injury to a child through any act or failure to act or a series of such acts or failures to act. An example would be if you repeatedly exposed a young child to the torture and cruel forms of execution of pets and animals simply to observe the child's distressed reactions, and the child consequently suffered serious foreseeable fear, fright, anxiety, and sleeplessness in long-term traumatic reaction;
  • Causing sexual abuse or exploitation of a child through any act or failure to act. An example would be if you repeatedly initiated and accomplished sexual contact with a child for your personal gratification;
  • Creating a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act. An example would be if you repeatedly pointed a firearm at a child while telling the child you were about to shoot, and the child consequently suffered serious mental injury;
  • Creating a likelihood of sexual abuse or exploitation of a child through any recent act or failure to act. An example would be if you delivered a child to a prostitution service in exchange for money;
  • Causing serious physical neglect of a child. An example would be if you left a child alone in a remote cabin in the cold without food, heat, or light for an extended period of time, aware that the child would suffer hypothermia, hunger, serious weight loss, and serious frostbite, and the child did;
  • Kicking, biting, throwing, burning, stabbing, or cutting a child in a manner that endangers the child. An example would be if you deliberately stabbed a child in the abdomen with a kitchen knife;
  • Unreasonably restraining or confining a child, based on consideration of the method, location, or duration of the restraint or confinement. An example would be if you tied a child to a chair for hours at a time to keep the child from escaping;
  • Forcefully shaking a child under one year of age;
  • Forcefully slapping or otherwise striking a child under one year of age;
  • Interfering with the breathing of a child. An example would be if you placed a pillow over a struggling child's head on a bed, desiring that the child pass out from lack of oxygen, and the child did;
  • Causing a child to be present at the operation of a methamphetamine laboratory if law enforcement is investigating the abuse. An example would be if you brought a child along to a methamphetamine operation to pick up drugs for illegal sale, and police followed you there and arrested you;
  • Leaving a child unsupervised with an individual, other than the child's parent, who the actor knows or reasonably should have known must register as a Tier II or Tier III sexual offender of a minor victim or is a convicted sexually violent predator or sexually violent delinquent child;
  • Causing the death of the child through any act or failure to act. An example would be if you left a young child in a closed hot vehicle in the sun while grocery shopping and the child died as a result; or
  • Engaging a child in a severe form of trafficking in persons or sex trafficking. An example would be if you kidnapped and sold a child to a person whom you knew to operate a child prostitution ring.

Further Definition of Serious Physical Neglect

As shown just above, Section 6303(b.1) defines child abuse to include "causing serious physical neglect of a child. Because of the ambiguity of what might constitute neglect, Section 6303(a) further defines "serious physical neglect to include when the suspect "endangers a child's life or health, threatens a child's well-being, causes bodily injury, or impairs a child's health, development or functioning" in one of these two ways:

  • A repeated, prolonged or egregious failure to supervise a child in a manner that is appropriate considering the child's developmental age and abilities. An example would be if you left a three-year-old child unsupervised outside for hours near a busy street where the child could wander into collision injury, be exposed to adult strangers who might kidnap or harm the child, leaving the child in fear; or
  • The failure to provide a child with adequate essentials of life, including food, shelter, or medical care. An example would be if you refused to take a child for whom you were responsible to a pediatrician for life-threatening seizures due to extremely high infection temperature, did not heat the home to a reasonable temperature in winter, leaving the child hypothermic, and did not bring home food for the child to eat leaving the child malnourished.

Further Definition of Sexual Abuse or Exploitation

As shown just above, Section 6303(b.1) defines child abuse to include "causing sexual abuse or exploitation of a child through any act or failure to act." Because of the seriousness, prevalence, and variety of forms of sexual abuse or exploitation of children, Section 6303(a) further defines "sexual abuse or exploitation" with two lists of specific examples.

Sexual Abuse or Exploitation Not with a Consenting Older Child Close in Age

Section 6303(a) 's first list of examples of sexual abuse or exploitation of a child excludes consensual activities between a child at least age fourteen and a suspect who is also at least age fourteen but not more than four years older than the child. In that instance, where participation is not consensual, the child is under age fourteen, or the suspect is not within four years of age of a child at least age fourteen, child abuse includes "the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement or coercion of a child to engage in or assist another individual to engage in sexually explicit conduct" in any form including any of the following forms:

  • Looking at the sexual or other intimate parts of a child or another individual for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire in any individual;
  • Participating in sexually explicit conversation either in person, by telephone, by computer, or by a computer-aided device for the purpose of sexual stimulation or gratification of any individual;
  • Actual or simulated sexual activity or nudity for the purpose of sexual stimulation or gratification of any individual;
  • Actual or simulated sexual activity for the purpose of producing visual depiction, including photographing, videotaping, computer depicting, or filming.

Sexual Abuse or Exploitation of a Consenting Older Child Close in Age

Section 6303(a) 's second list of examples of sexual abuse or exploitation of a child applies no matter whether the child consents, no matter the child's age so long as still a minor under age eighteen, and no matter the suspect's age, close to the child's age or not. Any of the following criminal offenses committed against a child under the age of eighteen constitute child abuse or exploitation:

  • Rape as 18 Pa.C.S. §3121 defines it;
  • Statutory sexual assault as 18 Pa.C.S. §3122.1 defines it;
  • Involuntary deviate sexual intercourse as 18 Pa.C.S. §3123 defines it;
  • Sexual assault as 18 Pa.C.S. §3124.1 defines it;
  • Institutional sexual assault as 18 Pa.C.S. §3124.2 defines it;
  • Aggravated indecent assault as 18 Pa.C.S. §3125 defines it;
  • Indecent assault as 18 Pa.C.S. §3126 defines it;
  • Indecent exposure as 18 Pa.C.S. §3127 defines it;
  • Incest as 18 Pa.C.S. §4302 defines it;
  • Prostitution as 18 Pa.C.S. §5902 defines it;
  • Sexual abuse as 18 Pa.C.S. §6312 defines it;
  • Unlawful contact with a minor as 18 Pa.C.S. §6318 defines it; and
  • Sexual exploitation as 18 Pa.C.S. § 6320 defines it.

Exclusions to ChildLine's Child Abuse Definition

While Section 6303(b.1) defines ChildLine child abuse as above, another part of the same statute, Section 6303(d), expressly excludes from the statute's child abuse definition the exclusions that yet another statute, Section 6304, lists. If your conduct falls within Section 6304, then your conduct does not constitute child abuse, even if it otherwise falls within the above definitions. Your retained Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Attorney may be able to argue one of the following exclusions to prevent the state from finding that you committed child abuse.

Environmental Factors as an Exclusion

Section 6304(a) 's first exclusion involves environmental factors. If the child's physical or mental injuries "result solely from environmental factors, such as inadequate housing, furnishings, income, clothing and medical care," and those factors "are beyond the control of the parent or person responsible for the child's welfare with whom the child resides," then the suspect has not abused the child. Section 6304(a) does not apply to a child-care service, meaning child-care services must account for environmental factors.

Religious Beliefs as an Exclusion

Section 6304(b)'s next exclusion is if a suspect closely related to the child failed to provide the child with needed medical or surgical care "because of sincerely held religious beliefs" if those beliefs "are consistent with those of a bona fide religion." To qualify for religious belief exclusion, the suspect must reside with the child and be the child's parent or related within the third degree of consanguinity. However, the county must closely monitor the child's health and must "seek court-ordered medical intervention when the lack of medical or surgical care threatens the child's life or long-term health."

Reasonable Force as an Exclusion

Section 6304(c) 's next exclusion is if the suspect, who must be the child's parent or responsible for the child's welfare, used reasonable force meeting one of these two alternatives:

  • The use of reasonable force constitutes incidental, minor, or reasonable physical contact with the child or other actions that are designed to maintain order and control. An example would be if you grasped, held, lifted, and physically removed a struggling child who had refused to leave a gymnasium or arena despite that it was closing, in the course of which the child suffered injury from struggling;
  • The use of reasonable force is necessary to quell a disturbance or remove the child from the scene of a disturbance that threatens physical injury to persons or damage to property. An example would be if you suddenly grasped and pulled a child out of a fight in which children were attempting to scratch, bite, strike, and otherwise injure one another, in the course of which the child suffered injury;
  • The use of reasonable force is necessary to prevent the child from self-inflicted physical harm. An example would be if you grasped and held a child down on a sofa to prevent the child from continuing to bite and wound herself while others came to the child's aid, and the child suffered injury from struggling;
  • The use of reasonable force is necessary for self-defense or the defense of another individual. An example would be if you suddenly grasped and pulled a young child away from a baby whom the child was about to strike in the head with a bat, in the course of which the child suffered injury;or
  • The use of reasonable force is necessary to obtain possession of weapons or other dangerous objects or controlled substances or paraphernalia that are on the child or within the control of the child. An example would be if you suddenly and forcefully knocked a gun from a child's hand to prevent a firearm death or injury, and your actions injured the child's hand.

Parental Discipline as an Exclusion

Section 6304(d) 's next exclusion is if the suspect is a parent who has exercised the recognized right to reasonable force "for the purposes of supervision, control, and discipline" of a child. An example would be if you pulled your child from a neighbor's swimming pool when your child refused to go home despite the neighbor's insistence on closing the pool, restrained your child as your child struggled to get back in the pool, and then cuffed your child with an open hand a time or two to get the child's attention to obey.

Recreational Activity as an Exclusion

Section 6304(e) 's next exclusion is if the suspect is "participating in a practice or competition in an interscholastic sport, physical education, a recreational activity, or an extracurricular activity that involves physical contact with" the child, and the suspect injures the child. An example would be if you were helping a child learn how to field batted baseballs, and you hit a ball toward the child for that purpose, but the child missed catching the ball, and the ball struck the child in the face, injuring the child.

Child-on-Child Contact as an Exclusion

Section 6304(f) 's next exclusion is if the suspect enables and allows a child's injury from contact with another child. An example would be if you took a child to play on a playground where other children chased and wrestled with your child, causing your child injury. Section 6304(f) also excludes a finding of sexual abuse for physical or mental injury to a child "in the course of a dispute, fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent." Section 6304(f), though, authorizes a child abuse finding against a suspect for child-on-child contact if that contact qualifies as criminal rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, or indecent exposure.

Defensive Force as an Exclusion

Section 6304(g) 's final exclusion is if the suspect injures a child while using "reasonable force for self-defense or the defense of another individual, consistent with the provisions of" Pennsylvania statutes relating to the use of force in self-protection or the protection of others. An example would be if a child approached you scratching, hitting, biting, and threatening to seriously injure you, and you pushed the child away firmly, unintentionally resulting in the child's fall backward and unexpected injury.

Evidence Supporting a ChildLine Child Abuse Finding

The evidence the caseworker seeks can also help you understand ChildLine's abuse definition. Under 55 Pa. Cons. Stat. 3490.321, ChildLine caseworkers must assess abuse risk based on the following evidence:

  • characteristics of the environment in which child abuse allegedly occurred, including a history of prior abuse and neglect;
  • characteristics of the parent, caregiver, household member, primary person responsible for the welfare of the child, including history of drug and alcohol abuse; and
  • characteristics of the family, including a history of family violence.

Caseworkers commonly use a Reference Manual for the Pennsylvania Model of Risk Assessment articulating these factors for assessing whether child abuse occurred under ChildLine's definition:

  • child factors such as the child's vulnerability, the severity of the abuse or neglect, frequency of the abuse, prior abuse or neglect, and extent of any emotional harm;
  • caregiver, household member, and perpetrator factors such as their age, physical condition, intellectual capability, emotional condition, cooperativeness, parenting skill and knowledge, alcohol or substance abuse, access to the child, prior abuse and neglect, and relationship with the child; and
  • family factors such as domestic violence, the condition of the home, family support, and family stressors.

What's at Stake in Applying ChildLine's Abuse Definition

Now that you have seen ChildLine's child abuse definition and examples of child abuse that a caseworker might identify, you should keep in mind all you have at stake when that caseworker applies ChildLine's abuse definition in your investigation. Your biggest stake is if you are the child's parent, close relative, or other beloved caretaker, and the investigation leads to the child's removal. You could lose your child custody, visitation rights, or other right to be in contact with the child. If you are a teacher of children, a healthcare provider for children, or another employee at work that brings you into contact with children, you could lose that job. ChildLine registration could also restrict or prohibit your education in a child-related program. ChildLine registration could also affect your marriage or other family and social relationships. Beware of the many bad consequences of ChildLine registration. Retain premier ChildLine defense representation.

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Helps

You have also now seen how broad and complex Pennsylvania's definition of ChildLine child abuse is and how many circumstances could potentially implicate you in an unexpected ChildLine investigation. That very breadth, complexity, and ambiguity of ChildLine's child abuse definition is another reason why you need to retain the Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team for a skilled and experienced ChildLine defense attorney to represent you the moment you learn of a ChildLine investigation. Keep in mind again that the bar is low for a suspected child abuse report, ChildLine referral to local authorities, and the assigning of a caseworker as an investigator. The proof standard for a ChildLine finding of child abuse is also significantly lower than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard for criminal child abuse charges. Your retained Lento Law Firm defense attorney may be able to share your exonerating and mitigating evidence with the caseworker before the caseworker completes the investigation and determines child abuse. If officials have already concluded the investigation finding child abuse and requiring your registration, then the Lento Law Firm Team may appeal that finding and advocate skillfully and effectively for you at the appeal hearing. Your Lento Law Firm Team's intervention may also forestall criminal abuse charges against you.

Premier Criminal Defense Attorney for ChildLine Investigations

The Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team and Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento have the skills and experience you need to defend ChildLine abuse allegations and investigations. Do not wait until the investigation is complete. Retaining counsel during the investigation phase may save you from having to appeal a ChildLine abuse entry with all its attendant consequences, like the loss of child custody and loss of employment. The Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team has successfully helped many Pennsylvania clients with their ChildLine dispute. Call 888.535.3686 or go online now.

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