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Early Childhood Education Professionals: Roles and Responsibilities Related to Child Maltreatment
There are personal, professional, and legal reasons why early childhood education professionals should become involved in preventing and reporting child abuse and neglect. Early childhood caregivers, early childhood specialists, and early childhood administrators in the difficult position of suspecting and filing a report of child maltreatment can take strength from knowing that such actions are supported by the education profession and by law.
To begin with, early childhood caregivers, early childhood specialists, and early childhood administrators have strong personal commitments to the well-being of the children and families they serve. For many people working with young children, their professional responsibility and respect for the law are supported by a deep personal commitment to the welfare of children. The value of this personal commitment must not be underestimated, for without it child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment efforts can be no more than superficial exercises. It is this sense of personal responsibility to and for children that is perhaps the strongest reason why early childhood education professionals become involved in the struggle against child abuse and neglect.
Second, anyone who works with young children has a professional responsibility to protect them from harm. Competent caregiving professionals are concerned about the health, safety, and happiness of young children and their families. Teachers, caregivers, and family child care providers are aware that they are models and examples for the children they serve, and that they may be the only readily available source of support, concern, and caring for many children. A related responsibility is to strengthen and support families. Early childhood education professionals recognize and support the role of parents as the primary educators of their own children. They know that, in most cases, maltreated children need to remain with their parents so they can benefit from growing up in healthy families. Early childhood education professionals want to do what is best for the children in their care because their professional standards require it. Some of these standards are discussed below.
A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: A Basic Manual includes a description of the philosophical tenets on which child protection is based. Some of these provide the drive for the involvement of early childhood education in child abuse and neglect.
- Communities should develop and implement programs to strengthen families and prevent the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. Early childhood programs prevent child maltreatment by providing high-quality care for young children. Parents can go to work or school knowing that their children are in a safe and nurturing environment. Family child care in particular can show a troubled family healthy ways to care for and enjoy young children.
- Child maltreatment is a community problem; no single agency, individual, or discipline has the necessary knowledge, skills, or resources to provide assistance needed by abused and neglected children and their families. Early childhood education programs are part of the network of community agencies providing services to children and their families. By building strong working relationships with other community groups, early childhood education programs become part of a team effort to respond effectively to meet the needs of maltreated children and their families.
- Most parents have the capacity to change their abusive/neglectful behavior, given sufficient help and resources to do so. Early childhood education programs often provide parent education sessions or refer parents to resources in the community that will help the parents learn to use positive parenting techniques rather than ones that harm children.
- If the goal is to help families protect their children and meet their developmental needs, then the child protection response needs to be nonpunitive, noncritical, and conducted in the least intrusive manner possible. By continuing to provide care for children during times of crisis and extreme stress, early childhood education programs support families, provide needed child care services, and reach out to families to help them build on their strengths.
Code of Ethical Conduct of the National Association for the Education of Young Children16
The Ethics Commission of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has developed a Code of Ethical Conduct for professionals who work directly with young children and families and for specialists who provide special services or supervise or train caregiving staff. The ideals and principles included in the Code address four areas of professional relationships: ethical responsibilities to children, families, colleagues, and the community and society. The following is an excerpt from Section 1: Ethical Responsibilities to Children.
P-1.1: Above all we shall not harm children. We shall not participate in practices that are disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitative, intimidating, psychologically damaging, or physically harmful to children. This principle has precedence over all others in this Code.
P-1.5: We shall be familiar with the symptoms of child abuse and neglect and know community procedures for addressing them.
P-1.6: When we have evidence of child abuse and neglect, we shall report the evidence to the appropriate community agency and follow up to ensure that appropriate action has been taken. When possible, parents will be informed that the referral has been made.
P-1.7: When other people tell us of their suspicion that a child is being abused or neglected but we lack evidence, we shall assist them in taking appropriate action to protect the child.
P-1.8: When a child protective agency fails to provide adequate protection for abused or neglected children, we acknowledge a collective ethical responsibility to work toward improvement of these services.
Head Start Policy Instruction17
Nationally, the Head Start Program serves over 450,000 children through 1,285 grantees in all U.S. States and Territories. Head Start Program policies and practices serve as models throughout the early childhood community. The January 1977 Head Start Policy Instruction on the Identification and Reporting on Child Abuse and Neglect (most recently amended February 29, 1988) requires that Head Start grantees, through their social services component staff, do the following:
- Cooperate fully with CPS agencies in their communities.
- Make every effort to retain in the programs children who are allegedly abused or neglected. The child's participation in Head Start may be essential in assisting families in overcoming abuse or neglect.
- Provide an orientation for parents, using a helpful rather than punitive approach, on the prevention of child abuse and neglect and the need to provide protection for abused and neglected children.
- Designate a staff member responsible for establishing and maintaining cooperative relationships with other agencies to which child maltreatment must be reported under State law. Head Start grantees or agencies should engage in formal and informal communication with staff at all levels of all agencies.
- Provide staff training on the identification and reporting of child abuse and neglect.
These policies are applicable to any program serving young children.
Most States designate early childhood caregivers, early childhood specialists, early childhood administrators, and the trainers of caregivers as mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect. (Sometimes the general term "educators" is used to include professionals who work with young children. See the definition of "mandated reporter" in the glossary.) The penalties for failure to report vary from State to State and may include fines, prison sentences of up to 1 year, or both. Professionals who fail to report might be liable to charges such as criminal negligence or accessories to assault. On the other hand, every State provides mandated reporters who act in good faith immunity from civil liability and/or criminal penalty.
Early childhood professionals have a responsibility to provide care for children and to support families. The personal, professional, and legal reasons discussed above provide a full explanation of the basis for early childhood professionals' responsibilities with regard to recognizing, reporting, preventing, and responding to child maltreatment.
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