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Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect
The involvement of early childhood education professionals in reporting child abuse and neglect is mandated or supported by State laws. In addition, each branch of the military has issued regulations, and many local child development agencies have established their own policies and procedures. Each of these levels encourages, mandates, or provides authority for the involvement of caregivers of young children in reporting child maltreatment by stating what is required of them and how that obligation is to be fulfilled.
All States, the District of Columbia, and the Territories have a reporting statute for child abuse and neglect. While each of these laws differs from the others in one or more ways, all share a common framework. In general, reporting statutes define child abuse and neglect and specify who must report, to whom the abuse or neglect must be reported, and the form and content of the report. Given the diversity of the different State statutes, caregiving professionals should obtain and review a copy of the law in their State. A review of the major points contained in most laws follows.
Most States mandate reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect by those who work with or are in contact with children such as social workers, doctors and nurses, educators, and law enforcement officers. Some States spell out what is meant by a person who works directly with children in a center-based or family child care program, such as administrators, directors, teachers, teacher aides, caregivers, family child care providers, counselors, home visitors, and so on.
Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect
States are often very specific in their definitions of child maltreatment. Most States include in their definition nonaccidental physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional (or mental) maltreatment by a person responsible for the child's welfare. Many States have included in their definitions of sexual abuse the production of child pornography or compelling children to view sexually explicit materials or acts.
DEFINITION OF CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT*
According to the laws in this State, reportable child abuse and neglect is defined as:
When To Report
State statutes vary with respect to when a report must be filed. While early reporting is vital, it is wise to keep notes on behaviors, bruises, and other suspicious evidence regarding the child. These informal, personally kept notes may be invaluable in filing the report and providing additional information to the CPS agency. It is helpful to continue to take notes even after a report is filed to provide updates for CPS investigators.
While States require the reporting of suspected abuse and neglect, no State requires that the reporter have proof that the abuse or neglect occurred before reporting. The laws clearly specify that reports must be made when the individual "suspects" or "has reasonable cause to believe" that abuse or neglect has occurred. In any case, the intent is clear; staff members must report incidents as soon as they notice them. Waiting for proof may involve grave risk for the child. Proof may be long in coming; witnesses to child abuse and neglect are rare, and the child's testimony may be disbelieved or inadmissible. Reports are made in terms of the child's possible condition, not in terms of an accusation against parents. A report of suspected child abuse and neglect states that a child may be an abused or neglected child, not that the parents are causing harm to their child. Further, it is not the caregiver's role to validate the abuse. This is the job of CPS caseworkers who have been trained to undertake this type of investigating.
Where To Report
Each State law specifies one or more agencies that receive reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Usually, this agency (or one of the agencies if two or more are named) is the Department of Social Services, Department of Human Resources, Division of Family and Children's Services, or CPS. The police department may also receive reports of child abuse and neglect.
The local Department of Social Services maintains CPS as a special child abuse and neglect unit. The CPS unit receives and investigates all reports of suspected child abuse and neglect and may be involved in treatment and rehabilitation of affected families.
It is important to know who receives reports of suspected child abuse and neglect in a particular jurisdiction. The State reporting statute will provide this information. Program supervisors should consult an attorney if questions arise.
How To Report
State statutes vary with regard to the form and contents of reports of suspected maltreatment. All States require that either an oral or written report (or both) be made to the agency or agencies responsible for child abuse and neglect. When two reports are required, the oral report is usually required immediately, with the written report following within 24 to 48 hours.
Some State statutes specify what information should be submitted in a report of suspected child abuse and neglect. Typically, this includes the following information:
- child's name, date of birth, age, and address;
- child's present location;
- names and ages of siblings;
- parent's name and address;
- nature and extent of the injury or condition observed; and
- reporter's name and location (sometimes not required, but extremely valuable to the CPS unit).
To assist citizens wanting to make oral reports, some States maintain a toll-free 24-hour telephone line solely for receipt of reports of suspected child maltreatment. Anyone may use this line to report an incident of suspected child abuse and neglect anywhere in the State. If available, the State number should be posted near the program's telephones and on the bulletin boards.
To make it easier to file written reports, most States (and some early childhood programs) provide reporting forms. Early childhood education agencies should keep a supply of these forms on hand to facilitate reporting. However, if a form is not available, reporters can use any piece of paper to provide the required information.
Local Program Reporting Requirements
Many early childhood education agencies have policies defining the duties and responsibilities of all staff in reporting child abuse and neglect.
If an early childhood education agency does not have policies and procedures for reporting child abuse and neglect, Figure 2 might be helpful in establishing them.
An early childhood education professional who suspects that a child is being maltreated must waste no time in reporting. Taking this action will probably make the reporter feel at risk, stressed, confused, and generally uncomfortable. It is not a pleasant task. To alleviate at least some discomfort, the reporter can use the following checklist to prepare for the report.
- Have the data been documented? Has the information been written down to organize it in the caregiver's mind?
- Have the data been analyzed? The early childhood education professional should consider what causes him/her to suspect abuse/neglect. He/she should list the symptoms, physical or behavioral.
- Has the caregiver been able to observe the parent/child interactions? Does the parent see the child as worthwhile or different and/or hard to handle?
- Has the early childhood education professional spoken with other professionals or colleagues? Do they have reason to suspect abuse/neglect? Why?
- Has the early childhood education professional reviewed the program's reporting policy?
- Does the caregiving professional have the exact telephone number and address of the agency to which the report should be made?
- If a written report is required, does the caregiver have the required forms or will the report be written as a narrative?
- Has the caregiver talked with his/her supervisor about the support available once the report is made? What steps will the early childhood education agency take if the parents try to remove the child? Will the caregiving professional have the program's support?
- If the professional is a family child care provider, has he/she talked with his/her spouse or another family member about the support the spouse will provide once the report is filed? What will the professional do if the parents try to remove the child from the professional's home?
- Has the early childhood education professional set up a support system for him/herself? (After the report is made, the caregiver may feel vulnerable and need to talk with others about feelings and concerns.)
The early childhood education professional might not be able to wait until all answers to these questions are in the affirmative but may need to report suspicions immediately. This checklist can help organize one's thoughts and secure the support needed once the report is filed.
Local Policies and Procedures for Reporting
Across the country, more and more early childhood programs are establishing written policies and procedures regarding child maltreatment. The policies and procedures support State law with regard to reporting and often provide staff with internal mechanisms to follow when a case is reported. Some policies go beyond reporting by encouraging staff to become actively involved with families and children.
For example, a local policy might state that parents must be notified when a staff member has reported a case of suspected abuse or neglect of a child enrolled in the program. This notification might be the responsibility of the director, the social services staff, the individual who filed the report, or some other staff member who knows the parents. In general, local policies and procedures should address:
- selecting a child maltreatment coordinator;
- providing staff training on child abuse and neglect;
- establishing and maintaining relationships with CPS;
- identifying suspected child abuse and neglect;
- talking with children;
- talking with parents;
- reporting suspected child abuse and neglect to CPS;
- notifying the program when a report is filed;
- maintaining confidentiality;
- providing documentation (such as observation notes or anecdotal records) to CPS or other agencies;
- notifying parents when a report is filed;
- following up to determine the outcome of the report; and
- specifying procedures for recordkeeping and record destruction.
Staff members should review their program's policies and procedures so they will be clear about their responsibilities. If a program does not have written policies or procedures for reporting child abuse and neglect or if the policies and procedures do not address all of the items listed above, appropriate policies and procedures should be established.
Difficulties Encountered When Reporting
A report of child maltreatment is not an accusation but is a request to determine whether child abuse or neglect exists and to begin the helping process. However, the reporting process does not always go smoothly. Difficulties may be encountered that prove to be barriers to reporting and discourage caregivers of young children from making future reports. If early childhood education professionals are aware of these difficulties beforehand and plan ways to overcome them, they will be better able to meet their legal and ethical responsibilities to the children in their care.
One of the biggest obstacles to reporting may be the feelings of the potential reporter. Some people would prefer not to get involved. As one family child care provider put it:
"From everything I've read and learned in training, I know that a child abuse report is not an accusation. But I really don't want to be the one to file the report. Surely a neighbor or someone else who knows Shawn will see what I've seen and will file a report. What if I made a mistake? There may be a perfectly good explanation for his injuries. If I'm wrong, the rest of the parents will think I'm incompetent or an alarmist. And they'll take their children out of my program. Besides, these parents are really nice and I really like Shawn. I don't want to lose him. I think I'll just wait to see what happens next."
This provider has voiced many of the concerns that are faced by caregivers of young children who suspect child abuse or neglect and therefore must file reports. Unfortunately, the provider in the example has let her concerns get the upper hand. Although she clearly understands her responsibilities, she has used faulty reasoning to decide that she should "wait and see" before filing a report. Apart from the fact that the "wait and see" approach is illegal, she has neglected to consider Shawn's welfare. While she waits for positive proof of his abuse or neglect, Shawn is vulnerable to continued incidents of maltreatment. This provider needs to realize that her involvement is both legally mandated, because as an early childhood education professional she is a mandated reporter, and ethically required, because it is her job to protect children in her care. When she files the report, she is supported by the law and by her profession.
"Filing the child abuse report was the most difficult thing I've ever done since I became an early childhood education professional. It was very helpful to know that I was supported by the laws of my State. And it was helpful to remember that I'm not interfering in a family's business. As a member of the early childhood field it's my job to protect children."
Early childhood education professionals are skilled observers of children's behavior and more likely than most citizens to be aware of the signs that a child has been abused or neglected. One of the most difficult situations for early childhood education professionals is discovering that a child they know well is being abused or neglected or that a respected member of the community is sexually abusing children at the program. This is a natural feeling, but it must be overcome. All children are protected by law, and no matter what the circumstances, the caregiving professional remains a mandated reporter.
Program Policies and Practices
Sometimes child development program directors place obstacles in the way of reporting. They might discourage staff involvement by refusing to take their reports seriously or by failing to make an official report of suspected maltreatment once a situation has been brought to their attention. Directors may experience some of the same feelings and concerns listed above or may not want to make "waves." For some directors, the fear of bad publicity for the program is an insurmountable concern. Such actions may be more than obstructive; they may be illegal. Therefore, if a director refuses to report a case of suspected child maltreatment, the early childhood professional is legally required to report the case to the appropriate authorities.
At times, directors may provide no backup to line staff, thus undercutting the reporter who has acted in the best interests of the child and complied with the law. Suddenly, reporters find their motives questioned. A staff member faced with this situation can file an anonymous report if necessary. Another barrier to reporting occurs when early childhood education programs do not train staff on their responsibilities to recognize, report, and prevent child maltreatment. Staff who do not know the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect or who are unaware of their legal responsibilities cannot help maltreated children.
Many of these procedural difficulties can be resolved when programs establish reporting policies and institute reporting procedures. Early childhood education programs also should mandate staff training on child abuse and neglect and update the training at least annually. Child abuse and neglect training should be part of the program's orientation process. Ideally, this training should take place before staff begin caring for children.
Nature of the Parent-Program Relationship
Parents and early childhood education program staff or family child care providers have special relationships that may hinder early childhood education professionals from reporting suspected cases of child maltreatment. The livelihood of many programs is dependent upon the attendance of children at the center or family child care home. These early childhood education programs may fear that reporting will injure their reputations, lead to a decline in enrollment, or both.
Early childhood programs offer a direct service to parents. Unless the early childhood education program is large or part of a larger organization, such as a school system, there are generally no buffers between the parents and program staff. Teachers, caregivers, and administrators are likely to develop close relationships with parents over many months or years. At times, when they observe signs of abuse or neglect, caregiving professionals may give parents the benefit of the doubt. Even when they do suspect child maltreatment, they may fear that confronting the parents would result in a hostile, indignant, or distressed reaction or retaliation. Training on child abuse and neglect must include recognizing the signs of child maltreatment and talking with children and parents about possible abuse or neglect.
Family Child Care
The factors described above are even more pronounced in family child care settings. Family child care providers, who often develop very close relationships with parents, are likely to find it even more difficult to report their suspicions. If the parents of the abused or neglected child are friends or neighbors of the provider, the provider may be unwilling to suspect maltreatment ("that couldn't happen to them"), may wish to ignore the problem because of the personal relationship ("I just couldn't report them, the whole street would hear about it"), or may attempt to solve the problem without reporting ("I'll just talk to them and help them work it out"). In these instances, the provider should be aware that failure to report not only may be illegal but may further endanger the child. It may also deny the family access to resources and concerned professionals who can provide genuine assistance. Reports can be made in the spirit of care, concern, and friendship.
Providers may also be reluctant to report when they are economically dependent on the parents for their livelihood. Many times, providers fear that the parents will withdraw the child from the family child care home. Since family child care providers are often dependent on word-of-mouth publicity, they may fear gaining a reputation as a person who does not maintain family confidences.
The chart following this page (Figure 3) summarizes some of the typical concerns of caregivers of young children with regard to reporting suspected child abuse and neglect. Each concern is followed by a statement that responds to the concern.
Once the Report is Made
When a report of child maltreatment is filed, CPS caseworkers must make several decisions. First, they must decide if the report fits the State law and agency policy. If it does, the case is investigated to determine if abuse or neglect actually occurred. If the report is substantiated, the caseworker must determine if the child will be safe at home. Finally, CPS must decide how to protect the child in the future. Only a small percentage of children must be removed from their homes. At times, the perpetrator is removed from the home as a condition of the child remaining in the home.
In general, the process for each case that comes to the attention of the CPS agency is similar. Figure 4 provides an overview of this process.
Although the CPS agency is responsible for case management and followup after the report has been made, CPS sometimes finds it necessary to consult with early childhood education professionals when assessing the family and planning treatment. Early childhood education professionals often have information in records or through personal knowledge concerning the child and the family's level of functioning, for example, their strengths and weaknesses. This information is invaluable to the CPS caseworker in making an accurate assessment and formulating realistic treatment goals and objectives for the family.
In providing this information, programs and individuals must be conscious of the rights of children and parents. Early childhood programs can be an excellent resource for aiding CPS, but great care must be taken to ensure the confidentiality of information and to share it only with those persons designated by law.
In most States, early childhood education professionals are mandated to report their suspicions of child abuse and neglect. In addition, caregivers of young children have an ethical responsibility to protect the children in their care. If staff members are uncertain about their responsibilities for reporting child abuse and neglect, it may help to consider the following questions and answers:
- Why do child maltreatment laws exist? To provide protection for children who cannot protect themselves.
- How do maltreated children get assistance? If the child is a victim of maltreatment, the only way the child and family will receive help is if a report is filed.
- What happens to children if nobody reports their maltreatment? If the maltreatment goes unnoticed and unreported, it is likely that it will continue and perhaps escalate.
- Under what circumstances do I have to file a report? If the caregiver's professional training and experience and knowledge of the child and his/her family lead to suspicions of child maltreatment, then a report must be filed.
- What will happen to me if I don't report? If an educator fails to report, he/she might be subject to fines or even a jail sentence under State laws.
- What if I'm wrong and the parents sue me? When staff members make a report in good faith, the law protects them. They cannot be sued for reporting child maltreatment because they are mandated to do so as early childhood professionals.
* Throughout the text of this manual are a series of Information Keys designed to be completed with appropriate information on the State or local program. Caregivers of young children are encouraged to fill out these Information Keys to provide useful Information if problems with child maltreatment should arise.
This material may be freely reproduced and distributed. However, when doing so, please credit Child Welfare Information Gateway.