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Minimizing the Risk of Maltreatment in Early Childhood Programs
Although most incidences of child maltreatment occur within the family, there have been many reported cases of child maltreatment in child care settings. Therefore, it is important for early childhood agencies to establish policies and implement practices that protect all young children while they are at a center or family child care home. For example, comprehensive staff selection procedures can ensure that only qualified individuals are hired to care for young children. Through effective supervision, administrators can become aware of staff who may have problems caring for young children. Ongoing training on child abuse and neglect and developmentally appropriate caregiving practices helps teachers, caregivers, and providers develop and maintain the necessary skills to care for and protect young children. Finally, there are several operational policies and practices that reduce the risk of children being maltreated in child care and address the appropriate procedures for program staff to follow in response to allegations of child abuse or neglect.
Staff Selection Procedures26
The staff selection process is most effective when a program uses a comprehensive system for recruiting, screening, and selecting staff. However, it is not easy to predict which candidates are likely to maltreat children versus those who will provide developmentally appropriate care. The hiring process accomplishes three goals: it allows the program to hire competent staff; it screens out those individuals who might represent a risk to the children's safety and well-being; and it meets legal standards for reasonable efforts to reduce risks to children. While the courts acknowledge that it is not possible to screen out all potential perpetrators of child abuse and neglect, early childhood agencies need to take the necessary steps to minimize the possibility of such individuals being hired to care for children.
For some programs, the recruitment and screening process is already defined in broad terms by the local agency of which the program is a part; for example, in school-based early childhood programs, the school system's staff selection process is used. Family child care providers may think that this information does not apply to them; however, if substitutes or assistants are ever needed, their qualifications and experience must be considered. One of Finkelhor's recommendations was that there should be increased attention to the family members of day care staff and operators, including their adolescent children. "Licensing needs to be aware of, talk to, screen all household members and extended family who will have access to and frequent interactions with children."27 Finkelhor stresses that most individuals who abuse young children in child care settings do not fit the profile of a pedophile (a person whose primary sexual interest is children). He encourages agencies to screen staff for a wide range of background information, including "signs of emotional problems; substance abuse; criminal behavior; sexual difficulties; poor judgment; and insensitivity or punitiveness to children."28
An objective, comprehensive, and uniformly applied hiring system can be an effective way to prevent the hiring of individuals who already have, or may in the future, maltreat children. The hiring system should include the following:
- Clearly written job descriptions so applicants will understand the roles and responsibilities of the job.
- Recruitment procedures to provide applicants with a first impression of the program.
- An application process to collect information about applicants so the program can compare the individual's credentials to the job qualifications.
- Personal interviews to provide a more detailed picture of the candidate's personality, communication skills, knowledge of child development, problem-solving skills, and creativity.
- Observation of candidates working with children to provide a picture of the individual's behavior with children, overall manner, and skills.
- Reference and criminal background checks to find out about the candidate's prior work experience and attitudes toward children and, if applicable, criminal record.
- Orientation training during a probationary period to help the new employee adjust to the job and identify individuals who are not well suited to work with children.
Every position needs a clearly written job description that identifies the job responsibilities and the standards for successfully carrying out these responsibilities. Candidates for positions involving child care need to know what is expected of them so they can determine whether they have the necessary skills and knowledge to perform effectively. Job descriptions should reflect the program's goals and objectives, the curriculum, and the program's caregiving practices. Individuals who are overwhelmed by the job description may decide to go no further with their employment applications. Job descriptions should include the following information:
- job title;
- a realistic description of job responsibilities, including supervisory duties;
- whether the job is full- or part-time; permanent or temporary;
- educational requirements;
- type and amount of previous experience required; and
- approximate salary range and fringe benefits for the position.
Because every job changes over time, job descriptions should be reviewed annually and revised if necessary. Up-to-date job descriptions are an important part of both the staff selection and supervision processes. The hiring policies relevant to screening out applicants who may have the potential to abuse and neglect children are discussed below.
The Application Process
A good job application form is based on the job description and includes questions that will help to identify appropriate candidates. Job application forms should include the following:
- Basic information: applicant's name, address, telephone number, and social security number; and position desired.
- Education: where applicant attended school; subjects studied; degree(s) earned and when; major and minor; and certifications (such as Child Development Associate) the candidate holds.
- Prior work experience: names and addresses of former employers; type of jobs held, for how long, and at what salary; immediate supervisor for each job listed; and primary responsibilities for each job listed.
- References: names, addresses, and telephone numbers for at least three personal and three work references.
Many agencies find it helpful to include on the application form a series of questions to encourage applicants to express personal views about working with children. Such questions can elicit information about the individual's attitudes, abilities, skills, and interest in training. Some examples of questions that might be included are:
- What do you feel are the most important experiences for children in an early childhood program?
- What are some of the values of play for children?
- How should parents be involved in the program?
- What is the goal of disciplining young children?
Applications also can include questions designed to screen individuals with prior criminal histories. For example:
- Have you ever been dismissed or fired? If yes, please provide an explanation.
- Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense? Have you ever been the subject of a civil dispute? If yes, please provide an explanation.
- Have you ever been the subject of a report to CPS? If yes, please provide an explanation.
- Does your military record include a court martial, bad conduct, or mental disability? If yes, please provide an explanation.
Reviewing applications provides a quick assessment of an individual's work experience and education. A personal interview goes beyond this initial picture and allows interviewers to determine how candidates will "fit" in the organization and how well they will work with the other staff. Interviewers should allow at least 45 minutes per interview, with 15-minute breaks to write down observations and reactions.
Too often, the interview process is a subjective one. One way to make the process more objective is to use a structured interview and ask all candidates the same questions. Another way is always to have at least two, and possibly three or four, interviewers participating. A family child care provider interviewing a substitute or assistant might ask a fellow provider, family member, or parent to participate in the interview. The candidate should not feel outnumbered or overwhelmed, but additional interviewers ensure that the candidate's responses are seen and heard from a number of perspectives.
When interviewing a series of candidates, it may be difficult to remember each candidate's responses to questions. It might be possible to tape the interview, with the candidate's permission of course. A specific notetaking format also could be used based on the job qualifications and the skills being sought.
Interviewers may use some of the following tips for conducting interviews:
- Putting candidates at ease by introducing the interviewers (names and titles), explaining the interview process, and describing the topics to be discussed.
- Being aware of the candidate's personal appearance, communication skills, and ability to express his or her ideas and concerns.
- Encouraging the candidate to talk; asking open-ended questions that allow the candidate to provide detailed responses.
- When using a structured interview format, asking each candidate the same questions in the same order. (This makes it easier to record the answers and compare them later on.)
- If necessary, clarifying any questions about why the candidate left previous jobs or gaps in his or her employment history.
- Trying to gain an impression of the candidate's temperament. How does he/she react to difficult questions? Does he/she have a sense of humor? Is he/she taking the interview seriously?
- When more than one interviewer is present, using a written rating system to facilitate agreement on which candidates should be given further consideration.
- Ending the interview with some questions to which the candidate must respond in writing. For example, staff might describe typical classroom situations and ask the candidate how he/she would handle the situation.
- If staff have an unexplained, nagging doubt about the individual, they should trust these instincts and hire someone else to fill the position. A "gut" reaction is usually an accurate barometer.
Several strategies can be included in the interviewing process to make it a more effective means of screening for those individuals who have the potential to abuse or neglect children.
- Staff should ask why the candidate wants to work with children.
- Interviewers might ask what children's behaviors make the candidate angry and how he/she copes with the anger.
- Situational questions should be included in the interview (for example, "What would you do if a child bit another child?") to get an indication of how applicants might respond.
- During every interview, the candidate should be advised that sexual activities and other abusive or neglectful interactions with children are illegal and will be reported to the appropriate authorities immediately.
- Interviewers might ask candidates to describe their approaches to disciplining children, providing specific examples of several different discipline techniques they have used in the past.
- Staff must explain how the program's policies and procedures are designed to prevent child maltreatment, ensuring that candidates understand that the program makes it very difficult for a child molester to abuse children.
- Interviewers can ask candidates if there is any information about them that might surface during the required criminal records check. (It is illegal to ask candidates about arrests, because these do not necessarily indicate anything negative about them.)
These strategies may be sufficient to discourage those individuals who have the potential to abuse or neglect children from continuing with their application to work at the program.
Observing Candidates Working With Children
It is strongly recommended that the interview process include a 1-hour observation of the candidate working with children. Candidates might be asked to come prepared to conduct an activity with children or to interact with children during a free play period.
During the observation, consider whether the candidate:
- Observes the children and asks questions or interacts with them in ways that promote thinking.
- Has realistic expectations for the children's stages of development.
- Demonstrates a sense of humor.
- Shows interest, enthusiasm, warmth, and patience in working with the children.
- Uses positive techniques to guide children's behavior.
- Shows a willingness to participate in all kinds of activities and routines, including messy ones such as finger painting, changing diapers, or helping young children in the bathroom.
- Plays with the children.
- Comforts children who are distressed.
- Supports the other staff in the room.
- Appears comfortable caring for young children and seems to be enjoying him/herself.
If a candidate behaves inappropriately, for example, belittles a child, fails to respond to children's comments or questions, or appears uncomfortable performing routine caregiving tasks, this individual may not be suited for the job. Interviewers must use their professional judgment, based on knowledge and understanding of early childhood education, to determine whether to continue considering this candidate.
After the observation, the interviewer should allow some time to talk with candidates about their perceptions of the program and to respond to any questions. What candidates have to say about the program and the questions they ask can provide added insight into their abilities and attitudes. Interviewers might also ask candidates questions based on observation notes, for example, why they redirected a child to another activity or why they asked a child about his block structure.
References and Criminal Record Checks
Too often at this point in the selection process, the interviewer already likes the candidate and wants to hire him/her. Checking references may seem like a mechanical requirement that provides little additional information. With the current concerns about child maltreatment in child care programs, it is extremely important to check references carefully.
A candidate's references can be valuable sources of information about prior work experience and attitudes toward children. Information from references may be the only way to evaluate work skills such as dependability, flexibility, initiative, and rapport with parents.
An interviewer should inform candidates that references will be contacted to verify their qualifications. Staff should be wary of candidates who can only supply personal references: "My supervisor doesn't work there any more and I don't know how to get in touch with her." Reference letters are not sufficient; personal conversations with the references are necessary to discuss fully the candidate's qualifications. When contacting a reference, staff should make a note of answers to questions, the date and time of the call, and any other important details. These records may be useful in the future.
If a reference seems reluctant to give information, the interviewer may need to be direct, describing the candidate's potential position, as well as the program and State policies related to child discipline and child abuse and neglect. The interviewer should ask if the candidate would have any difficulty complying with these laws and policies.
Staff should not limit reference checks to those supplied by the candidate, but make it a practice always to contact at least one reference not supplied by the candidate. If possible, the interviewer should contact the candidate's last three employers, asking first for the head of the organization, and then for the name of someone else in the organization who supervised or worked directly with the candidate. This additional contact may be well worth the time.
When a candidate is employed elsewhere, he/she may ask that the current employer not be contacted. Staff should honor this request but explain that if the job is offered to the candidate, it will be contingent on a favorable reference from the current employer.
Figure 5 provides a list of questions to ask professional and personal references.
Once the final selection is made, some programs, communities, or States require a check of all available public child protection and criminal records regarding evidence of child abuse or neglect by the candidate. The candidate may need to sign an "Authorization to Release Information," and fingerprints may be required. Many State CPS agencies have centralized registries that can be checked for reports of child maltreatment against the individual. Most States and some counties have systems for completing the criminal record check. State laws may also define some categories of criminal offenses as making the candidate ineligible for employment caring for children. Finkelhor warns that police record checks identify only a small fraction of potential abusers and at a very high cost.29 He also warns that programs may feel that because an individual has passed the screening he/she is guaranteed to be an appropriate person to care for children.
Probationary Period and Orientation
It is a good idea to establish a 3-month probationary period for all newly hired staff. During this time, supervisors can assess whether the individual has the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to care for young children.
During the probationary period, the supervisor should closely monitor the new employee's performance by dropping in frequently to visit with and observe the individual working with children. Parents should also be encouraged to drop in and visit the new employee and to ask their children about their reactions to their new teacher or caregiver.
Orientation training generally takes place before the new employee assumes job responsibilities. It should be a positive experience for new hires and help them adjust to their new positions. To perform well on the job, new staff members need to know the program's policies, procedures, goals, acceptable discipline techniques, and so on. The orientation also should include training related to identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect.
At the end of the probationary period, the supervisor and employee can meet to assess how well the employee is functioning on the job and how well he/she is relating to children, parents, and other staff. If the employee is doing well, supervisors should provide a salary increase, change the employee's status from probationary to permanent, and be thankful that they have made a successful hire. If the employee is not meeting the expectations of the job, the supervisor has two options: continue the probationary period for another 3 months and, at the same time, provide training and support; or have the courage to terminate the individual's employment. The latter option is generally reserved for an individual who is clearly not capable of improvement and whose attitude and actions are detrimental to the children. It is extremely wise to remove such an individual from a program before any children are harmed as a result of his/her poor attitude and lack of appropriate caregiving skills.
Much abuse and neglect in child care settings can be prevented through effective staff supervision. A supervisor's ongoing, active participation in the daily operations of the program is really the only way to ensure that children are receiving quality care from skilled and caring staff. Caring for children can be a very stressful job, and teachers and caregivers who are overwhelmed can lose control and lash out at children. Consequently, an early childhood supervisor's role in preventing maltreatment includes identifying and alleviating elements of the work environment that are sources of stress for staff.
Stress Reduction Techniques
Many adults think that child care is just playing with children all day. To parents who have spent a difficult day at their work, caregiving can look like an ideal occupation. Consider the following true story.30
"Our early childhood program opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. One day, everything went wrong. A child tried to put a shoe down the toilet. The keys to the kitchen were lost. The milk was sour. The sprinklers went off while the children were playing on the lawn, and there weren't enough dry clothes for everyone. It was just a rotten day."
"One mother called and said she would be late. The teacher who usually closed was ill, so another teacher had to stay. It had been a 12-hour day and she was tired. She held the child in her lap in a rocking chair to wait. When the mother finally arrived, she looked at the teacher and said, `Oh, what I wouldn't give for a job like yours where I could sit all day and rock.'"
Early childhood education professionals will probably find this story very familiar and very believable. Despite how easy the job may look to others, they know that working with young children is actually a very stressful occupation. Caregivers and teachers are on call all day, with little time to take a break from their responsibilities. Like all adults, when caregiving professionals are under stress they sometimes lose control of their own behavior and strike out or say things they don't really mean. In a child care setting, a staff member might shake an infant who has been crying all morning, kick a toddler who has just kicked another child, or scream at a preschooler who deliberately threw sand at another child. These are obviously unacceptable behaviors for early childhood education professionals, and depending on the situation, they might be considered to be abusive. Shaking very young children may result in serious injury or death. There is often a fine line between abuse and poor caregiving.
Many of the books and courses on stress reduction depict stress as a personal problem that can be controlled by the person experiencing the stress. For example, they suggest that individuals can reduce and cope with their stress by eating nutritious meals; listening to pleasant music; getting enough exercise; and reducing their intake of caffeine, sugar, fat, and alcohol. While these practices can help, they may not be enough to alleviate stress when the child care program itself and the requirements of the job are major causes of the stress. Stress in child care can be caused by a number of factors, such as child/staff ratios that are too high, long hours on duty without sufficient breaks, and lack of resources to purchase sufficient materials and equipment.
Supervisors can play an important role in creating and maintaining work environments that reduce rather than contribute to stress in front-line staff. Some examples include the following:
- Providing written job descriptions and personnel policies so staff are clear about the program's policies and their own responsibilities.
- Maintaining a roster of qualified, available substitute teachers so staff do not come to work sick because they are afraid nobody will be available to care for the children.
- Using regular staff meetings as opportunities for sharing feelings and discussing concerns so staff can feel supported by you and their colleagues.
- Including staff in decision-making so they can provide input regarding how the program operates and feel that they have some control over their work environment.
- Recruiting volunteers, providing training for them, and scheduling them to assist during the busiest times of the day so staff can take breaks or provide individual attention to children.
- Advocating improved staff wages, paid overtime, an 8-hour work day, and fringe benefits so staff will be adequately compensated for their contributions.
- Showing respect and regularly acknowledging accomplishments so staff know that they are valued.
- Making sure there is always someone on call so staff who recognize that they are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the job can take a break from being with the children.
- Providing a pleasant, comfortable place with adult-sized furniture for staff to use on breaks so that their time away from the children is truly relaxing and rejuvenating.
Supervisors also can help staff to identify and build on the features of their job that are satisfying and sources of motivation. Typically these include:
- observing children's progress;
- positive relationships with children;
- the challenge of the work;
- pride in providing a needed service;
- meaningful partnerships with parents; and
- recognition shown by colleagues and supervisors.
Most of the "satisfiers" on this list are related to staff competence. Typically, staff who understand child development and know how to provide developmentally appropriate care are less frustrated by the demands of the job. Supervisors can provide or oversee ongoing training programs to ensure that all staff continue to learn about young children and continue to develop their caregiving skills.
Recognizing and Responding to Signs That an Individual Has the Potential To Abuse31
Most teachers and caregivers occasionally have difficult days when they are not at their best and as a result are not as effective in meeting children's needs. They may be feeling tired, sick, or overwhelmed by personal or job-related problems. For individuals who have the potential to abuse children, however, these types of days occur more frequently and are likely to be a result of ongoing personal problems and inappropriate attitudes and beliefs about what kinds of caregiving and discipline are best for young children. Typically, these individuals have low self-esteem and view a child's misbehavior as a personal affront. "He watched me clean up the art area, then he spilled the paint container on purpose." Such caregivers can be difficult to supervise because they have a hard time accepting criticism and are not willing to accept responsibility for their own behavior. "It isn't my fault she fell off the climber. I told her not to go up so high." Some individuals with the potential to abuse are quick to lose their tempers with children, colleagues, and parents. Coping with their personal problems takes most of their energy, so they have little energy left to give to the children.
While individuals who have the potential to abuse children may be educated or have received training in the early childhood field, they tend to have unrealistic expectations about what children are able to do at various stages of development. They either have little knowledge of child development or do not apply the knowledge they do have. They may have strong beliefs that the only way to get children to do what they are supposed to do is to punish them when they misbehave. Typically, they use harsh discipline techniques or the same technique with all children regardless of the child's age or the situation.
As supervisors observe staff interacting with children, they should take note of the following behaviors that might be signs that the individual has the potential to abuse:
- yelling or screaming at children;
- grabbing or jerking children;
- not letting a child speak;
- constantly controlling activities without allowing children to make choices about what they want to do or what materials they want to use;
- insisting that children be obedient and respectful;
- showing satisfaction when winning a power struggle with a child;
- using the same discipline technique with every child and in every situation;
- standing apart from the children and watching rather than interacting with them;
- relating poorly to adults and preferring the company of children;
- taking unusual or inappropriate interest in a child; and
- showing no respect for children's rights to privacy or to refuse to be touched by an adult.
When supervisors witness inappropriate behaviors such as those described above during formal and informal observations of staff, they should take objective notes that state exactly what the person did and said rather than paraphrasing, summarizing, or making judgments. If possible, write down direct quotes of what the adult and child said. For example, an objective recording might state:
"Ms. Johnson held Hannah by both arms and shook her. Hannah fell down. Ms. Johnson said, `You stand up and listen to me when I'm speaking to you.' Hannah started to cry. Ms. Johnson picked her up."
A recording that is not objective might state:
"Ms. Johnson lost her temper and grabbed Hannah by both arms and shook her until she fell down. Hannah looked very upset. Ms. Johnson towered over her and told Hannah to get up off the floor. Hannah was so scared she started to cry. Ms. Johnson refused to wait for Hannah to get up and picked her up herself."
The supervisor should schedule a time to meet with the individual to provide feedback related to the observation. During this feedback session, the supervisor and the staff member can jointly develop plans for improving the individual's interactions with children. The supervisor should continue to observe this individual and look for signs that his/her performance is improving. If the individual's skills do not improve after repeated observations and feedback sessions, the supervisor must use professional judgment to determine whether this staff member should be terminated. Termination is an appropriate response when the individual has clearly violated program policies and it is clear that the behavior is detrimental to the children. This decision should be made based on objective information and observations. Supervisors should never terminate a staff member in anger, during a crisis, or under stress.
At times, supervisors may witness staff behaviors that not only are clear infractions of the program's policies regarding staff and child interactions but also are grounds for immediate termination. In these instances, the program should follow established procedures for terminating the individual's employment.
Providing Ongoing Staff Training
One of the characteristics of a high-quality early childhood program is that staff participate in ongoing training designed to help them increase their caregiving skills and knowledge. Training might include onsite workshops, community college courses, self-instructional curriculums, attendance at conferences, or use of an early childhood resource library. The topics addressed in training will vary according to the program's philosophy, the needs of the staff, and the ages and stages of the children being served. All topics related to providing developmentally appropriate care are relevant to reducing the risk of child maltreatment at the center. The most critical topics include understanding and using principles of child development, using positive techniques for guiding children's behaviors, and observing each child to identify and plan ways to meet their individual needs.
Training on child development should include concrete examples of the cognitive, socioemotional, and physical development of young children and opportunities for participants to learn how to apply this knowledge as they provide care. For example:
- Young infants cry when they are frustrated or distressed; therefore, caregivers should respond to the child's crying immediately and consistently.
- Toddlers may resist changes in the schedule or the way routines are carried out; therefore, caregivers should explain changes before they happen and provide simple explanations of why the change is necessary.
- Preschoolers want to make decisions for themselves; therefore, caregivers should provide many opportunities for children to decide what they want to do, who they want to play with, and what toys and materials they want to use.
Training on positive guidance techniques should stress the following principles:
- Discipline means guiding and directing children toward acceptable behavior so they can eventually develop self-discipline.
- Punishment hurts or penalizes children, who may comply out of fear, and reinforces bad feelings they have about themselves.
- Positive guidance techniques should be individualized according to the child's developmental stage and the situation.
- Many behavior problems can be anticipated, and plans made to avoid the problems. For example, as certain toys (such as toy telephones) are very popular and young children are still learning how to share, providing multiples of these toys can avoid fights over who will use the toys.
- Children can learn to understand the consequences of their actions and to behave in acceptable ways because they want to please adults, be praised and rewarded, and avoid consequences they have experienced in the past.
- Discipline techniques should neither physically nor emotionally harm a child.
Training on positive guidance also should clearly explain the program's written discipline policy, and all staff should receive a copy of this document. Establishing discipline policies is discussed later in this chapter.
Training on observing children to identify and plan ways to meet their individual needs should address the following topics:
- Guidelines for conducting systematic observations of children to identify needs, strengths, interests, and skills.
- Planning a program based on each child's needs, strengths, interests, and skills.
- Using observation information to keep track of a child's progress.
- Using observation information to resolve a child's problem behavior.
Observation skills also are used to identify signs that a child has been maltreated. An early childhood education professional's objective recordings of observations conducted over time can provide valuable data concerning how a child behaves and under what conditions.
Many early childhood education programs have adopted the following policies and practices, some of which were included as recommendations in Finkelhor's report on sexual abuse in day care, to minimize the risk that child maltreatment will occur in the program.32
Providing Open Access to Parents
Early childhood education agencies encourage parents to make unannounced visits at any time during daily operations. After letting someone in the office know they are there to visit, and perhaps signing in and picking up a visitor's badge, parents are free to visit their child's room, the outdoor play area, and other rooms in the center. In addition, to emphasize that parents and early childhood education professionals are partners in keeping children safe and promoting their growth and development, programs provide many opportunities for parents to become actively involved in the program's operations.
Minimizing Opportunities for Adults To Be Alone With Children
Because many reported instances of sexual abuse in day care occurred during toileting, many programs are redesigning their bathrooms so they are no longer private, enclosed areas where children might be isolated with an abusive adult. Some centers have removed or minimized the doors and partitions. New centers are designed with bathrooms as open areas. As a further precaution, when children come in from outdoors to use the toilet, programs require them to be accompanied or supervised by an adult. In rooms where infants and toddlers receive care, the diapering areas are positioned so they are visible to all the adults in the room.
Other design changes that minimize opportunities for adults to be alone with children include removing window curtains and shades and the inside locks on closets or workrooms. When centers have outdoor storage areas, these must be visible from the main building. In some centers, to ensure that parents and supervisors can observe staff while they are caring for children, all classrooms have windows or other means of viewing from the outside and hallways. These windows must be left uncovered; there can be no artwork, draperies, or blinds that would hamper viewing.
Finally, centers are establishing rules that prevent staff members or volunteers from taking children from the center without a parent's written permission unless it is a group activity or an approved medical visit.
Minimizing Unauthorized Access to the Center
To control access to the center by individuals who are not staff or parents, centers are establishing rules such as the following:
- All visitors and volunteers must sign in and out when visiting the center, and visitors must be escorted.
- Friends or family members of staff may not be present in the center unless they are approved volunteers who are scheduled to be there.
- A staff member must be present at the main entrance at all times to monitor exit and entry of adults and children.
Preparing Written Accident Reports
No matter how stringent a program's safety precautions, children will have accidents at the center or family child care home. The accidents may be minor and involve scratches or small bruises, or they may be serious enough to require medical attention. Regardless of how severe the child's injury, the program should notify parents immediately and complete an accident report, with a copy provided to the child's parents. The accident report will provide some protection against parent allegations that their child was maltreated while at the program.
Accidents, Unusual Marks, or Injuries
Programs should also conduct daily health inspections as children arrive in the morning and record any unusual marks or bruises. These records can document that a child arrived with the injury and that the injury did not occur at the program. Staff should also discuss with the child how he/she sustained any unusual marks or injury. (See the segment on "Talking With the Child.")
Establishing Written Policies Concerning Disciplining Children
Written policies related to appropriate discipline techniques are a useful tool for informing parents and staff of the program's philosophy regarding guiding children's behavior. The policies can be included in parent handbooks and distributed to new staff as part of the orientation process. Some agencies require new staff to read the policies and sign a statement indicating that they have read and understand the policies and the consequences of not complying with them. Written discipline policies should include the following information:
- A statement of the program's philosophy regarding guiding children's behavior:
- The goal of discipline is to help children learn self-control.
- Discipline techniques reflect realistic expectations for children's behavior based on an understanding of child development.
- Positive guidance techniques should be individualized based on the situation and the child's age and stage of development.
- Corporal punishment and isolation of children are prohibited.
- Children will not be subjected to verbal outbursts or remarks that are belittling or intimidating.
- Discipline approaches will help children to develop problem-solving skills and learn the logical consequences of their behavior.
- Examples of positive guidance techniques used with children of different ages.
- Who will discipline children and under what conditions.
- At what point parents will be asked to participate in planning strategies to help children overcome troublesome behaviors (for example, biting or having tantrums).
- How staff will assess the effectiveness of the discipline techniques being used.
The program's discipline policy should serve as the framework for all staff training on guiding children's behavior.
Establishing Written Policies Concerning Touching Children
An essential part of providing care for young children is holding, hugging, and otherwise positively touching them. A program's touch policy can be very brief and to the point. Children will be touched when it makes them feel good and left alone when they prefer not to be touched. It is very important for programs to make it clear to staff and parents that, except in situations where safety is an issue, children always have the option of indicating, "I don't want you to rub my back, pick me up, hug me, or hold my hand." Caregivers of young children need to understand that they must never touch children for their own gratification.
Responding to Allegations of Child Abuse or Neglect
Even when early childhood education agencies implement all of the suggestions provided in this section to minimize the risk of child abuse or neglect occurring in the program, there is still the possibility that a staff member might be justly or unjustly accused of maltreating a child. Just as agencies develop plans for fire emergencies and other disasters, every early childhood education program needs a plan for responding if an allegation of child maltreatment is made. These procedures should address how the director, the program staff, and the accused individual will respond to the allegation.
How the agency responds to an allegation will depend on the situation. A parent's call to the director to mention a concern about how a teacher handled a child's misbehavior will be handled differently from a parent's report to CPS alleging that a teacher abused a child. The initial response should attempt to gather the facts rather than defend the staff member or the program. All discussions with parents, children, and staff should be documented. As in all cases of suspected child maltreatment, the child's well-being should be the most important consideration.
If a parent calls the program director to voice a concern, the director should respond expeditiously.
- The program director should meet with the parent to hear his/her concern and collect details about the incident, document what is said and agreed upon during this meeting, and let the parent know what must be done next.
- If appropriate, the administrator might meet with the child to discuss what took place. This discussion should be very general and low key, with open-ended questions so the director does not lead the child to confirm or deny the parent's report.
- The administrator must meet with the staff person (separately) to hear his/her version of what took place.
- If appropriate, a meeting should be arranged with the staff person and parents, to review each version of the incident and to clear up any miscommunications or misunderstandings. The administrator should try to reach some agreement on how the child's behavior will be handled in the future.
- After completing these steps, if the director suspects that abuse or neglect has occurred, he/she must file a report with the CPS and licensing authorities and cooperate with them during the investigation.
If a staff member reports to the director that a colleague has maltreated a child, the director can respond as indicated below:
- A conference should be held with the individual making the accusation to discuss and document all the details concerning the incident or series of incidents.
- The director should seek and document information from other staff about the incident(s) and the discipline techniques the accused typically uses. The administrator should hold private meetings with each individual and reassure them that their remarks are confidential. It is important to use open-ended questions to gather the necessary information.
- The director must meet with the accused staff member to discuss his/her version of the incident(s) and try to determine whether this was a one-time event or a pattern of behavior.
- All information collected should be reviewed to determine if this was a case of inappropriate but not abusive caregiving. If this was inappropriate caregiving, the director should meet with the staff member again to review program policies and set goals for using appropriate discipline. It is important to define the consequences that will occur if the behavior does not improve during a specified period of time. The administrator should then observe the individual's behavior over time, document improvements or lack of improvements, and respond accordingly.
- If a review of the information collected leads to a suspicion that child maltreatment took place, a report must be filed with the authorities and the program should cooperate with them during their investigation.
When a parent or staff member files a report of suspected child abuse or neglect with the CPS agency or other authorities, the director can respond as follows:
- The administrator must cooperate fully with the investigation and respond quickly to the authorities' requests for factual information.
- Program staff (including the accused) should be advised to cooperate fully and provide the requested information.
- The director should place the accused staff person on administrative leave or give him/her an assignment that does not involve contact with children. This step will depend on what response is required by the program's policy. In some instances, the program may have grounds for terminating the individual's employment.
- The accused staff member should refer all questions about the allegation to the director.
- The administrator must decide whether the program will inform all parents and staff that the report has been filed.
- A staff member should be appointed to handle media requests for information and the director should provide guidance on how the requests will be handled.
- Staff should contact the agency's attorney and keep him/her apprised of the situation.
- An internal investigation should be conducted using the steps described above. The administrator should keep authorities informed and pass on any information collected.
- When necessary, corrective action should be taken to reduce the possibility of an incident recurring.
- The accused staff member should be referred to an attorney who has worked on child care issues in the past.
- The director should encourage the staff member to seek counseling or support from family and friends or others who have been similarly accused.
When an early childhood education professional is accused of maltreating a child, there are several steps he/she should take.
- The accused caregiver should immediately write down exactly what happened as he/she remembers it.
- He/she might ask others who were present to write down their accounts of what happened.
- The educator should write a description of the relationship with the child and with the family or colleague making the accusation. Have there been previous disagreements over caregiving practices? Has the family expressed concern about the care the child is receiving?
- The accused should keep a copy of these statements and give one to the director or designee who will coordinate the investigation from the center's side.
- It is important to discuss the allegation with the director. If parents or colleagues have voiced their concerns, rather than filing a report, the care provider should meet with the director and the parents to discuss the incident.
- If a report has been filed, the accused must prepare to meet with the representatives of the agencies involved: CPS, law enforcement, and/or licensing.
- The accused staff member will need to clarify his/her job status during the investigation. If the program policy is to place a staff member on administrative leave, the teacher should find out from the director when he/she will be allowed to return.
Once the investigations conducted by the program and the authorities are completed, the results may clearly indicate that maltreatment occurred, may vindicate the accused staff member, or may be inconclusive. If the investigation clearly indicates that maltreatment occurred, the program's response must be to terminate the staff member. If the results are inconclusive, the agency will have to make a judgment based on the children's well-being, the concerns of parents and staff, and the agency's future liability if allegations are made in the future. If the staff member is cleared of any wrongdoing, the agency will need to support the individual as he/she returns to work with children and families.
The recommendations made in this chapter serve several purposes. They minimize the risk of child maltreatment occurring in the program and the risk that parents or other staff will make allegations that child maltreatment has occurred. However, these recommendations also have an impact on the quality of care the program provides to children and their families. Comprehensive staff selection procedures ensure that only the most qualified applicants are hired to work with children. Effective supervision and ongoing training result in motivated and skilled staff implementing the daily program. Operational procedures that encourage parent access to the program and give staff guidance on appropriate ways to discipline and touch children also contribute to program quality. Agencies implementing these recommended practices can feel assured that they are well worth any extra effort involved.
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