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The Role of Professional Child Care Providers in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau. Karageorge, Kathy, Kendall, Rosemary|
|Year Published: 2008|
Responding to Allegations of Child Maltreatment in Child Care Programs
Prior to the 1980s, there was no systematic examination of maltreatment in child care settings.70 Since then, however, public and professional concern about abuse or neglect in child care facilities has increased significantly, with public officials, educators, and parents examining allegations of child abuse and neglect more fully.
Child abuse or neglect can occur in any child care setting.71 Even when early childhood professionals implement policies and procedures to minimize the risk of child maltreatment occurring in their program, there is still the possibility that a staff member might mistreat a child. Sometimes the maltreatment is intentional; however, child care providers, like any caregivers, can be accused of maltreatment in situations when they had no intention of hurting a child. Stress or the lack of appropriate skills, for example, can cause a child care provider to lash out at a child and cause an injury. Just as agencies develop plans for fire emergencies and other disasters, programs need a plan for responding to an allegation of child maltreatment by program staff or volunteers. While the child's well-being should be the top priority, the rights of the caregiver also must be protected, and the appropriate reporting agency will know how to ensure both.
How the program responds to an allegation will depend on the situation. A parent's call to the director to mention a concern about how a caregiver handled a child's misbehavior will be handled differently than a report by a parent or other staff member to child protective services (CPS) alleging that a staff member abused a child. The following information provides guidance to the director and to the accused individual when there are allegations of maltreatment.
The Director's Response
The director of a child care center or a designated staff member often takes the lead in responding to accusations or reports of suspected maltreatment. For smaller or family child care providers, the director is usually also the primary child care provider. The following sections discuss the director's response to these occurrences.
Before a Report of Maltreatment Is Made
If a parent or staff member voices concern to a director about a caregiver's handling of a child, even if the situation is not considered to be possible maltreatment, the director needs to respond quickly. The director should follow several steps, including:
- Meet with the parent to hear the concerns and to collect details about the incident. Document what is said and agreed upon during this meeting, and let the parent know what steps will be taken.
- If appropriate, meet with the child to discuss what took place. The director should be very general and low-key and should use open-ended, rather than leading, questions (e.g., "How did you hurt your arm?" rather than "Did your teacher grab your arm too hard when you wouldn't listen?").
- Meet with the staff person separately to hear the account of what took place. If this is a case of inappropriate, but not abusive, caregiving, the director should review the program policies and set goals for providing appropriate care. It is important to define the consequences that will occur if the caregiver's behavior does not improve during a specified period of time. The director should then observe the individual's behavior over time, document improvements or the lack thereof, and respond accordingly.
- If appropriate, arrange separate meetings with the staff person and the parent to review each account of the incident and to clear up any miscommunications or misunderstandings. The director, the caregiver, and the parent should reach some agreement on how the child's behavior will be handled in the future.
- Make a report to CPS if the director suspects at any time during these discussions that maltreatment has occurred.
If the parent or a staff member, however, alleges that any sexual abuse or serious physical abuse took place, the director must report this to CPS and should not talk with the alleged perpetrator.
After a Report of Maltreatment Is Made
Once a report of suspected child abuse or neglect by a child care provider has been filed with CPS or with other authorities by a parent, child care staff, or the director, the director should respond as follows:
- Cooperate fully with the investigation and respond quickly to the authorities' requests for information.
- Work with CPS or law enforcement to decide when to talk with the staff person who has been accused of abuse or neglect. Despite feelings of loyalty to staff, it is crucial that the director remember she is not trained in how to investigate allegations, and any involvement by the director or other staff could jeopardize the investigation by CPS or law enforcement. For instance, while the rights of the accused must be protected, if another staff member notifies the alleged perpetrator of an impending accusation, it may provide enough time to hide possible evidence or to pressure a colleague or a child to recant.
- Advise program staff, including the accused, to cooperate fully with CPS and to provide the requested information. All staff should be reminded about professional practices and program policies regarding confidentiality and should be instructed not to discuss the specific allegations with the media, with parents, or with others. Doing so may affect the case, for example, by creating rumors.
- As program policy requires, place the accused staff person on administrative leave or reassign her to tasks that do not involve direct contact with children.
- Have the accused staff member refer all questions about the allegation from non-CPS sources (e.g., the media) to the director.
- Talk with the CPS caseworker to find out if the agency is notifying other parents of children in the program about the case. CPS may do so in order to determine if other children make or corroborate claims of maltreatment.
- Handle all media requests for information and explain to the staff how the requests will be managed. This should occur in consultation with CPS in order not to jeopardize the investigation or to break confidentiality. The report of alleged child abuse or neglect within a child care center is newsworthy, and the director should cite the organization's policy about protecting the confidentiality rights of the child, the child's family, and the accused staff member. The director also should be prepared to give information about how the safety of all the children in the program is being protected.
- Follow the program policy regarding contacting other staff, the board of directors, the program's sponsoring organization, and the organization's attorney to keep them apprised of the situation.
- Notify the State child care licensing agency about the allegation within 24 hours or as dictated by that State's statutes.
- Keep CPS authorities informed and pass on any pertinent information received from staff, parents, or other children.
- Offer or provide counseling or support services to other staff members during the investigation.
The Accused Person's Response
A child care provider who is accused of maltreating a child should take the following steps:
- Document immediately any pertinent information, including a description of the incident and a list of witnesses.
- Ask others who were present to document their accounts of what happened, but take care not to pressure others to recant or to alter their accounts.
- Write a description of the relationships with the child, the family, or the colleague making the accusation. For instance, have there been previous disagreements over caregiving practices? Has the family expressed concern about the care the child has received?
- Keep a copy of these statements and give one to the director.
- Prepare to meet with the representatives of the agencies involved, which may include CPS, law enforcement, and licensing authorities. It may be necessary for the staff person to hire legal counsel.
- Clarify her job status during the investigation. If the program policy is to place an accused staff member on administrative leave, the caregiver should find out from the director when or under what circumstances she will be allowed to return.
There also are situations when a parent or staff member suspects the director of child maltreatment. In such instances, the concerned parent or staff member should contact CPS or law enforcement. In child care center settings, it may be appropriate for the person reporting the alleged maltreatment to notify the director's supervisor or manager that a report has been made.
After the Investigation Is Completed
Once the investigation has been completed by the authorities, the results may indicate that maltreatment occurred, may clear the accused staff member, or may be inconclusive. If the CPS investigation clearly indicates that maltreatment occurred, the program's response must be to terminate the staff member's employment. If the results are inconclusive, the program will have to make a judgment based on the children's well-being, the concerns of parents and staff, and the program's liability if allegations are made in the future. If the staff member is cleared of any wrongdoing, the program will need to support the individual upon returning to work with the children and families.
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