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- » The Role of Educators in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect: Chapter 3 - Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect
The Role of Educators in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau., Caliber Associates. Crosson-Tower, Cynthia.|
|Year Published: 2003|
Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect
Every form of maltreatment (e.g., physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional maltreatment) is inflicted on school-age children. In addition, many children who live in homes where domestic violence occurs are not only in danger of a misdirected blow, but probably suffer emotional consequences from witnessing this disturbing behavior.9 Knowledgeable educators can pick up indicators of possible maltreatment by observing children's behavior at school, recognizing physical signs, and noticing family dynamics during routine interactions with parents.
Physical signs of maltreatment are those that are readily observable. They may be mild or severe, such as numerous, deep bruises or broken bones, or more subtle, such as malnutrition or the wearing of inappropriate clothing (e.g., a lack of warm clothing in winter).
Behavioral indicators may exist independently or may accompany physical indicators. Children who have witnessed family violence also may demonstrate this through their behavior. There might be subtle clues, such as the educator's intuitive or "gut feeling" that something is wrong. There might be sexual behaviors in young children indicating sexual knowledge not ordinarily possessed by young children. Being victimized by abuse also may result in inappropriate behavior, such as sexual or physical aggression toward younger children.
Educators are in an excellent position to notice behavioral indicators. As trained observers, they are sensitive to the range of behaviors exhibited by children at various developmental stages, and they are quick to notice behaviors that fall outside this range. Teachers also can talk with a child's previous teacher to note any major changes in his or her behavior. Abused and neglected children sometimes get the reputation for being "bad kids" or extremely difficult to control or understand. Research suggests that challenging behavior is often a cry for help that concerned adults need to learn to decode.10
In the past, lists of physical and behavioral indicators have been provided as guidelines to help educators recognize maltreatment. The first manual in this series, A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice, provides a full range of indicators that may help someone recognize abuse or neglect. Exhibit 3-1 lists several of the key indicators, and Appendix D—Educators' Checklist for Recognizing Possible Child Maltreatment, provides a more extensive listing. Recognition of child maltreatment, however, is not based always upon the detection of one or two clues, but rather on the recognition of a cluster of indicators that make up a composite or pattern. It also is very important to remember that some indicators, both physical and behavioral, may be indications of something other than abuse. This chapter is dedicated to recognizing composites that might be seen specifically by educators and that warrant the consideration of maltreatment as a cause.
Physical abuse of children includes any nonaccidental physical injury caused by the child's caretaker. It may include injuries sustained from burning, beating, kicking, punching, and so on. While the injury is not an accident, neither is it necessarily the intent of the child's caretaker to injure the child. Physical abuse may result from extreme discipline or from punishment that is inappropriate to the child's age or condition, or the parent may experience recurrent lapses in self-control brought on by immaturity, stress, or the use of alcohol or illicit drugs.
Some children are more susceptible to being maltreated than others. Some require a great deal of care (e.g., premature babies or disabled or developmentally delayed children), and others may be difficult to raise (e.g., hyperactive children, children with behavioral problems). These children would fare well in some families, but not in other families where the burden is too great for the parents to cope with the special needs of these children.
Regardless of whether the child has special needs or not, signs of physical abuse often are difficult to interpret with absolute certainty and may be confused with normal childhood injuries, such as bruises.
Behavioral Clues That May Indicate Child Abuse
Although there are many other potential indicators, the abused child may:
Since children typically receive bruises during the course of play or while being active, the leading or bony edges of the body, such as knees, elbows, forearms, or brows, are most likely to be bruised. The soft tissue areas, such as cheeks, buttocks, and thighs, are not normally injured in such circumstances. Additionally, bruises received during the normal course of childhood activity are rarely in distinct shapes, such as a hand, belt buckle, or adult teeth marks. Bruises in soft tissue areas or in distinct shapes are much more indicative of physical abuse.12
Unlike bruises, abuse directed to the abdomen or the head, which are two particularly vulnerable spots, often are undetected because many of the injuries are internal. Injuries to the abdomen can cause swelling, tenderness, and vomiting. Injuries to the head may cause swelling in the brain, dizziness, blackouts, retinal detachment, or even death. Referred to more recently as the "shaken baby" syndrome, violent shaking can cause severe damage in children at any age.
Children who are being abused may demonstrate a change in behavior. Many become more aggressive, destructive, fearful, or withdrawn. Often, in an effort to avoid the abuse, they will stay away from home as much as possible. They may see school as a safe environment. Some children are abused because their parents have higher expectations of them than the children are able to achieve or because the expectations are developmentally inappropriate. The case example below illustrates this point.
Sandy was 10 years old when her teacher became concerned about possible abuse. She was extremely shy and withdrawn and often took a great deal of time to grasp ideas, despite the fact that testing showed no significant organic or perceptual difficulties. Her mother, a professional artist who had chosen to stay home with her four children, and her father, an accountant, found Sandy's slowness especially distressing.
As the homework required of Sandy increased, she became more withdrawn. The teacher suggested she ask for help at home, especially with her math. At first Sandy began coming to school with peculiar marks on her hands and arms. On another day she arrived with a burn mark covering a good part of her hand. It had not been treated and had become infected. In asking Sandy about her injuries, the teacher learned that Sandy was being abused by her father. After several drinks, he would "help her" with her homework, become angered by her slowness, and prod her with his lit cigarette. The latest burn was a result of Sandy's hand being pressed on an iron when her father had taken over her mother's efforts to teach Sandy how to "iron properly."
Sandy's story of parents who expect too much is common. The child's withdrawn behavior was indicative of her poor self-concept and exacerbated by her experiences at home. Cigarettes are tools for abuse due to their ready accessibility, as are objects such as irons, electric cords, and other household items. Substance abuse also may be a factor in child maltreatment cases.
Despite their need for help, many children and adolescents do not initially admit to being abused. Rather they often may invent seemingly plausible explanations, but the explanations tend not to fit the injury. Despite the abuse, children often are understandably fearful of being taken from their families or getting their parents into trouble. Other children also may just assume that this behavior is normal.
Sometimes, it is assumed that physical abuse does not occur typically with adolescents or that, since they often are more difficult or provocative, they "invite" abuse. After all, adolescents are stronger, have more resources, and can run away. In fact, neither resistance nor flight is a good option for most adolescents. Resistance might further ignite their parents' anger, and unless they want to deal with the harsh realities of life on the street, flight is not an option for most adolescents. In addition, since adolescents often are perceived as more capable, adults are less likely to intervene or alert them to the resources available that can address personal or family issues.13
Dara, a ninth-grade student, began complaining to her gym teacher after a particularly intense argument with her parents. Despite her complaints, Dara insisted that her bruised face was the result of "bumping into a door." The teacher suspected otherwise because of the location of the bruise and Dara's frightened demeanor, but chose not to act. It was not until Dara began vomiting several months later and was doubled over in pain that the situation came to anyone's attention. It was discovered that Dara had internal injuries from a severe blow to the abdomen. The girl finally admitted to the teacher about months of physical abuse she received from her father.
Abuse situations similar to Dara's happen to adolescents for various reasons. In Dara's home, adolescence, with its emerging sexuality, created problems. Her father sought to control her with force, perhaps fearful that she would become pregnant before marriage, as her sister had done. The fear of losing a child can sometimes paradoxically drive parents to abuse. In other homes, physical punishment already present may increase and escalate into abuse as the child matures.
In all of the case examples, school personnel became aware of physical or behavioral symptoms and family patterns that, in a composite, pointed to either abuse or the exposure to abuse (such as observing, hearing, or intervening in domestic violence or dealing with the subsequent fears and behaviors, which some States define as child maltreatment).
It also is important for those working with children to be sensitive to comments about severe physical fights between the parents that might indicate the presence of domestic violence. A child who speaks of caretakers who sleep a great deal during normally wakeful hours may be living with substance abusers or individuals suffering from clinical depression. Extremely erratic behavior described by the child on the part of the parent might suggest other types of mental illness. Educators must learn to listen "between the lines" as children make comments about their homes. Sometimes this will give vital clues about the conflict with which they are dealing.
While symptoms do not necessarily indicate abuse, any suspected child abuse legally must be reported to child protective services (CPS) to be assessed or investigated. Directly communicating with CPS or using the school's protocol, in combination with the educator's common sense and concern for the students, will help identify what information will be needed to file a report. See Appendix F—Sample Report of Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect, for an example of a school reporting protocol.
Because neglect often leaves no visible scars, it is more likely to go undetected. Neglect is the most common type of maltreatment that children experience and has consequences that are just as serious as physical abuse.14 It accounts for over one-half of reported child maltreatment cases and is the leading cause of fatalities due to child maltreatment.15 Living in poverty, in and of itself, does not mean that a child is being neglected. Neglect involves the caregiver's inattention to the basic needs of a child, such as food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and supervision. While physical abuse tends to be episodic, neglect tends to be chronic. Neglectful families often appear to be multiproblem families, although families with numerous problems are not always neglectful. Because neglect often is chronic rather than episodic, these children may grow up believing that this is a normal way life and will not seek assistance or confide this information to anyone.
Neglect follows a continuum from mild to severe. The more severe the neglect, the more negative the impact on the children. Neglect often is very difficult to define. Parents might be accused of failing to provide a safe environment by not protecting them from unsanitary or hazardous living conditions. It also can be the result of extenuating circumstances, such as leaving young children alone when the babysitter fails to show up or when not going to work may result in losing a job that is the only means of income. In such a case, while the child is definitely being neglected, CPS would work with the family to provide other child care arrangements.
In a study of 87 educators in New York, researchers found that educators were less likely to report neglect than any other type of child maltreatment.16 When educators are considering the possibility of neglect, it is important to look for consistencies. They should ask themselves the following questions:
- Does the child consistently demonstrate unattended material needs?
- Is the child stealing or hoarding food consistently or only occasionally?
- Would looking at the family in the context of the community or the culture provide any answers?
- Is this culturally acceptable child-rearing, a different lifestyle, or true neglect as defined by law?
- Does the child describe parental behavior that might indicate the presence of substance abuse?
- Does the child miss a lot of school?
- Is the child having difficulty staying awake in school?
- Is the child inappropriately dressed for the weather?
- Does the child exhibit poor hygiene consistently?
The seven Reese children demonstrated poor hygiene and generally listless behavior. Although bright, the four, school-age children had difficulty in school, a fact seemingly more attributable to problems in organizing their thinking and perhaps a lack of stimulation at home, than to an absence of innate ability. Simon, a fifth-grade student, had been called to the attention of teachers numerous times in his school career for stealing food from other children and the cafeteria. Several times the children had been sent home with lice. The school nurse routinely attended to their neglected medical needs. Frequently Jena, a first-grade student, would report being left home with her younger siblings while her older brothers were away from home.
Mrs. Reese was a 26-year-old single mother. Jena's father had recently left the home. Although she loved her children, she seemed to have little energy to care for them. She fluctuated between working, collecting unemployment, and being on welfare. Mrs. Reese's own family had been involved with CPS for severe neglect.
Neglect usually permeates a family, with all children subject to similar treatment, as the case example above illustrates. It also shows how neglect can have an intergenerational cycle. It often is difficult for parents to break this cycle if they have not witnessed appropriate caretaking skills and behaviors or if they have not received services that provide relevant treatment, instruction, or education. This lack of experience and knowledge of appropriate parenting skills sometimes leads to other difficulties. For instance, it is not uncommon to see a parent-child role reversal where children appear to be taking on parental roles and responsibilities. This can be a heavy burden and these adolescents often "drift" out of the home rather than formally leave, as the case below shows.
Oscar lived with his alcoholic parents and spent most of his free time caring for his four younger siblings. At 15, Oscar was out of school more than he attended it. Repeated calls to the parents did not seem to remedy the problem. Oscar began sleeping at friends' houses. Often, when the school called to find out why Oscar was not there, his mother had not seen him for several days. She seemed angrier that her 10-year-old child was complaining about taking care of the younger children than whether Oscar appeared to be missing. Finally, the boy disappeared and only rumors from some of the other students in his school gave any indication about his whereabouts.
Emotional maltreatment includes blaming, belittling, or rejecting a child; constantly treating siblings unequally; and a persistent lack of concern by the caretaker for the child's welfare. While emotional maltreatment most often is observed through behavior, it is possible for children to internalize it so sufficiently as to cause developmental lags, psychosomatic symptoms, and other visible effects, such as speech disorders.
At age 11, Max spent much of his free time rocking back and forth. He did not seem to be aware of this behavior. He also had been observed sucking his thumb. When Max was 6 his father died, and his mother had remarried when he was 7. Soon after, Max developed a tendency to stutter when he felt a great deal of stress. His stepfather was a career military man who described Max as a "real wimp who has to be whipped into shape." The "whipping" was not physical, but rather an emotional battering that seriously damaged the child's already shaky self-concept. Now Max described amorphous fears that plagued him both day and night. He became obsessed with "aliens who were coming to destroy the world." His drawings depicted menacing creatures bent on destruction.
For Max and other children like him, the world has taken on a sinister quality. These children may seem overly compliant and undemanding or aggressive and overdemanding. Educators involved with such children may need to tailor or modify their interactions with and responses to these behaviors.
While the behavior of emotionally maltreated children may be similar to those who are emotionally disturbed, parental behavior can help to distinguish the two. The parents of an emotionally disturbed child generally accept the existence of a problem. They are usually concerned about the child's welfare and seek help. The parents of an emotionally maltreated child, however, may blame the child for the problem, may ignore the problem's existence, may refuse all offers of help, or may be unconcerned about the child's welfare.
Sexual abuse is defined as inappropriate adolescent or adult sexual behavior with a child. It includes fondling a child's genitals, making the child fondle the adult's genitals, intercourse, incest, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism, sexual exploitation, or exposure to pornography. Sexual abuse also may be committed by a person under the age of 18 when that person is either significantly older than the victim or when the perpetrator is in a position of power or control over the child.
Sexual abuse may take place within the family (referred to as incest), by a parent's boyfriend or girlfriend, or at the hands of adult caretakers outside the family, for example, a family friend or babysitter. Contrary to the myth of abuse by strangers, these adults are usually known to the child and have a relationship with him or her.
The impact of sexual abuse on the child depends upon many factors. The identity of the perpetrator, the amount of force or betrayal involved, the duration of the abuse, and the child's age and individual personality can affect the way in which the child responds to the abuse. When children know the perpetrator and are not significantly physically harmed, the feelings of betrayal when they recognize that they have experienced abuse may be more disturbing than the abuse itself. Boys are as vulnerable to sexual abuse as girls, though they are not as likely to report the abuse.17 One problem in detecting sexual abuse is that the warning signals to its existence also may be indicative of other disturbances.
Freddy began complaining of headaches and loss of appetite. His parents reported that he had frequent nightmares and bedwetting and was suddenly obsessed with keeping clean. He seemed alienated from his friends and withdrew into himself. His schoolwork appeared to suffer.
His concerned but busy parents began to explore the cause of his changed behavior. A friend of Freddy told his parents that a male staff member at an after-school program that both he and Freddy attended had molested him. The story revealed that Freddy also was abused. Freddy continued to deny this until the staff member admitted his involvement with both boys and described the threats he used to attempt to silence them. Freddy was afraid to reveal the abuse due to the threats made toward him.
Freddy's fears, nightmares, bedwetting, and obsessive cleanliness are typical reactions of sexually abused children. Some victims withdraw while others express their conflicts with aggression. Educators should be aware of other indicators of possible sexual abuse, such as children drawing unusual pictures involving children with no mouths or hands or explicit drawings of genitalia or sexual acts. Many are so consumed with the efforts to deal with their conflicts over the abuse that they lack the energy to keep up their studies. Like Freddy, sexually abused children keep the secret not only because the perpetrator may have threatened them, their families, or their pets, but also because they feel they are to blame for their involvement and fear that no one will believe them if they report the abuse. The abuse also may create fear in boys about their sexuality or masculinity.
When sexually abused children begin to tell of their abuse by sexually acting out, the clues may seem clearer to some adults. Children who are being or have been sexually abused will sometimes abuse their peers or younger children. This seems to be their way of trying to make sense of the abuse they have received. They have learned sexual stimulation and, therefore, may stimulate themselves or peers. Learning that they often receive attention through sexualized behavior, they may approach adults seductively assuming that this is what all adults want from them.
It may be more difficult to detect the symptoms of sexual abuse in adolescents because of their increased knowledge about sexuality. Yet, teens that exhibit intense promiscuity and self-injurious behavior (e.g., eating disorders or self-mutilation) may be revealing conflicts they feel they cannot handle.
In some cases these internal conflicts are so severe that a victim of sexual abuse contemplates or attempts suicide. If an adolescent or teen confides personal thoughts or behaviors to an educator that suggests such a possibility, the following questions that focus on the strongest risk factors have demonstrated usefulness in screening high school students for risk of suicide:
- Have you been feeling unhappy or sad?
- Have you thought about suicide?
- If yes, do you have a plan? If yes, what is it?
If an individual has suicidal thoughts and a plan for how to kill him- or herself, the more developed and lethal the plan, the greater the risk of suicide.18 The educator should be judicious in making such inquiries and questions should always be developmentally appropriate. Upon learning an adolescent or teen is suicidal, the educator must immediately identify and contact a professional trained to work in this area.
It is important to realize that most sexual abuse victims do not demonstrate suicidal tendencies. Many other indicators and behaviors are more commonly exhibited. See the case example below.
Beverly was a ninth-grade student who suddenly began to grow extremely thin. Her teachers observed that she never ate lunch, and when they mentioned it to her, she passed it off by saying there was never anything she liked. When she fainted in biology lab one day, the biology teacher called in the guidance counselor and asked him to see Beverly. Beverly, however, denied that there was a problem. When the guidance counselor suggested that he talk with her mother, however, Beverly became hysterical. Several months later when Beverly was hospitalized with an eating disorder, a friend, who was petrified that Beverly would die, came to the guidance counselor with the information that Beverly was being sexually abused by her uncle.
For Beverly, caught up in a web of secrecy and sexual abuse, the idea of starving herself seemed preferable to telling her mother what was happening. It is important to remember that while anorexia is usually a cry for help, it is not always indicative of physical or sexual abuse.
Another more recent phenomenon is the growing sexual abuse of children via the Internet. Children of all ages now have access to computers in schools and libraries. While no one is disputing the use of computers as valuable tools for learning, there is a growing problem of children's exposure (accidentally or intentionally) to pornography as well as solicitations online from sexual offenders. Researchers found in a study that 49 percent of youths being solicited and 44 percent of those unintentionally exposed to pornography did not report the incidents.19
The following are some clues that a child may be involved with a sexual predator or is accessing sexually graphic material. Be aware if a child:
- Prevents others from viewing the computer screen;
- Has disks that he or she will not allow others to see;
- Uses files that end with .gif and .jpg; these may be files that are quite innocent or could contain pornography;
- Takes significant time away from schoolwork to use the computer;
- Begins to exhibit furtive or secret behavior when using the Internet.
Concerns related to this should be reported to CPS, who will then refer them to the appropriate agency. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Service, and the U.S. Customs Service, also has a Cyber-tipline (http://www.missingkids.com) and toll-free telephone number (1.800.843.5678) where anyone can file a report regarding online pornography.20
|Nonfamilial Sexual Assault|
Typically in the child welfare field, the term "sexual abuse" refers to situations where a child is abused by a parent or another family member (e.g., an uncle, a stepparent) responsible for his or her care and wellbeing. Although the terms are not mutually exclusive, "sexual assault" typically implies a forced or coerced sexual act by someone from outside the family. Sexual assault is a broad term that encompasses several, more specific legal charges that can be levied depending on the circumstances of a case, including rape, statutory rape, sexual battery, forcible sodomy, and exhibitionism. The charges appropriate for a given case and the scope and meaning of these legal terms varies from State to State and or sometimes even within a State. For instance, statutory rape typically is considered a consensual act between an older person or adult and a minor, with the pertinent ages and age disparity ranging by jurisdiction.21
There are several legal categories of sexual assault perpetrators, including:
Commonly in each of these situations, there is a power differential (e.g., age, physical size, or position in society) between the abuser and the victim that is a dynamic in the assault. The range of the child's possible subsequent behavior, which educators may note in school, is likely to be consistent with that of a child who was abused by a family member, making it difficult or impossible for the educator to ascertain the perpetrator's identity. Sometimes a student may not exhibit any physical or behavioral clue regarding a sexual assault, but may choose to confide in an educator because he or she is ashamed or afraid to reveal it to his or her parents or to law enforcement and is unsure of where else to turn. While educators are mandated reporters for cases of suspected physical or sexual abuse, they often are not specifically required to report sexual offenses perpetrated by individuals outside of the victim's family. Educators should be familiar with reporting requirements and guidelines in their school system.
Regardless of whether the perpetrator is a member of the victim's family, the majority of sexual violence cases occur when the victim is a child or adolescent. One national survey of women and girls who had been raped found that 29 percent of the cases occurred when the victim was less than 11 years old. Another 32 percent of the cases occurred when the victim was between the ages of 11 and 17.24
There are numerous valuable resources to learn more about this issue, including the National Child Welfare Resource Center on Legal and Judicial Issues housed at the American Bar Association. For more information, visit their Web site at http://www.abanet.org/child/rclji/home.html.
General Indicators of Abuse and Neglect
There are some indicators that serve as general signs that a child may be experiencing abuse or neglect rather than signaling the presence of one particular type of maltreatment. These general indicators include academic as well as emotional or psychological clues. It is important to remember that these also can be signs of other problems such as substance abuse, a reaction to divorce, or the witnessing of domestic violence, so it is crucial to follow each school's protocol in reporting suspected abuse.
Academic performance may be a clue to the presence of child abuse and neglect. This is particularly true when there are sudden or extreme changes in performance. Previously good students who suddenly seem disinterested in school or who are no longer prepared for class may be maltreated. Students who suddenly refuse to change for gym class may be concealing evidence of beatings. There can be numerous clues suggesting neglect. Some of these factors may affect academic performance, such as children whose broken glasses have not been replaced.
Studies have revealed a relationship between child maltreatment and certain learning problems. For example, Cornell University's Family Life Development Center matched maltreated children with 530 children who had not suffered abuse or neglect and evaluated the school performance of each child based upon grades, grade repetition, achievement test scores, and other school adjustment issues (e.g., truancies, suspensions, and infractions of disciplinary codes). Results indicated that maltreatment has a significant negative influence on children's performance in school. The maltreated children scored lower in test scores, especially in reading, and earned fewer A's and B's and more F's than children who were not mistreated.25 In addition, children who have been maltreated show discipline problems at school, poor achievement, increased absences and dropout rates, and greater likelihood of repeating grades.26
A similar study in Georgia using a smaller population (21 physically abused children, 47 neglected children) and a nonmatched control group compared test scores, grades, and teacher and parent interviews to examine the academic, social, and adaptive behavior of school-age children. Significant differences between the maltreated children and those in the control groups were found. Abused and neglected children were more likely to demonstrate disturbed behaviors (e.g., aggression, hyperactivity, anxiety, depression). Maltreated children had lower self-concepts and felt unpopular in school. In addition, maltreated children scored significantly lower in language, math, and reading scores in the Iowa and Georgia Criterion Reference Test. Teachers felt these children were learning at below-average levels and were more likely to repeat a grade.27
Research also indicates that a child who is physically disabled or developmentally delayed is at a statistically greater risk of child abuse and neglect. In some instances, the disabled child may be viewed as a disappointment, a burden, or proof of the parents' "failure." Educators should be sensitive to the particular stresses that having a disabled child can produce in some families. Children whose physical needs and problems are ignored also may experience learning difficulties. Children who are always hungry, who cannot see the blackboard because they need glasses, or who cannot hear the teacher because they need hearing aids, cannot learn well, and this inability to learn will be reflected in academic achievement.
Academic difficulties may have a variety of causes, and the presence of an academic problem does not prove that child abuse or neglect exists. The possibility of child abuse or neglect, however, must be considered along with other possible causes when the problem is assessed.
Emotional and Psychological Clues
Educators typically are sensitive to children who are "different" (e.g., physically or mentally challenged). That sensitivity should be extended to abused and neglected children, who also may appear to be different.
Educators should be alert to children who are hostile and angry, those that effectively alienate all who come in contact with them, or children who may be passive, withdrawn, and uncommunicative. These represent extreme ranges in the expected behaviors and attitudes of abused and neglected children. Additionally, sudden changes in a child's emotional or psychological well-being may serve as clues to child abuse and neglect. The previously gregarious child who becomes uncommunicative and withdrawn might be concealing maltreatment.
The educator often has several opportunities to observe family dynamics. Normal interactions with the parents may indicate how they feel about the child. There may be an increased risk of child abuse and neglect if the parents consistently:
- Blame or belittle the child;
- See the child as very different from his or her siblings (in a negative way);
- See the child as "bad," "evil," or a "monster";
- Find nothing good or attractive in the child;
- Seem unconcerned about the child;
- Fail to keep appointments or refuse to discuss problems the child may be having in school;
- Behave in a bizarre or an irrational manner.
There are instances when the educator knows a child's family is in marital crisis, experiencing economic or emotional turmoil, or has other significant stressors. Such information may be relevant and helpful to CPS when maltreatment is suspected and a report made. See Appendix D—Educators' Checklist for Recognizing Possible Child Maltreatment for other possible symptoms of abuse and neglect.
Conversations with Families and Children
In all States, educators are mandated reporters for child maltreatment cases. It is important to understand that, legally speaking, educators only need reasonable suspicion rather than hard evidence or proof to report alleged child abuse. It may be tempting to call the parents and see what they have to say, but such action can pose several serious problems, such as increasing the risk of further abuse to the child or interfering with the initial CPS investigation. Many schools have protocols detailing how suspected maltreatment is to be reported to CPS. These protocols delineate what information the educator will need to provide when reporting, or whether teachers, administrators, and other school personnel should refer all suspicions to the school's social worker or Child Protection Team who will then make the report to CPS.
Talking with the Child
It is the educator's role to report any suspicions of child maltreatment. There are times when CPS may request more information in order to meet statutory guidelines for accepting a report. In these instances or when a child discloses maltreatment to an educator, it is important to remember:
- CPS or law enforcement has the responsibility to assess and investigate.
- It is critical that the educator not lead the child.
- The child may be afraid to tell the whole truth because of:
- Fear of being further hurt by the abuser if he or she tells;
- A belief that the abuser may go to jail;
- Fear that the child may be removed from the home;
- Feelings of loyalty and attachment to the parent, no matter how bad the situation might be.
- The child may feel that the abuse or neglect is normal.
Unfortunately, it can be very easy to fall into the role of confidant to an abused child who has begged that no one be told. The case example below describes such a situation.
When Frank approached his school coach he said only that he had a problem. He asked that he be able to talk to the coach in strictest confidence. The coach must promise to tell no one. The coach agreed and Frank disclosed that he was being sexually abused by his older brother. Unsure of what to do, the coach confided in the school principal, a good friend. The principal insisted that the case be reported immediately and told the coach he must tell Frank. Unfortunately, the report was made before the coach was able to locate Frank. In consequence, Frank became extremely angry and hurt, feeling that now he could trust no one. He vehemently denied that he had ever reported the abuse and retreated into a protective shell of mistrust. Since there was no proof, the case was not pursued.
When Talking with the Child
If CPS needs more information before accepting a report and requests that the educator talk with the child or if the child self-discloses, it is important to remember:
While the school had a legal mandate to make a report to CPS, this case illustrates the importance of educators not making promises they cannot keep and understanding school protocols for reporting. Had the coach been aware of these responsibilities, he could have informed Frank at the time and, hopefully, helped the student through the process. It also is important to realize how difficult it is for most children to discuss abuse, because of emotional elements or a limited ability to express themselves. When talking with the child, use language that a child will understand. When describing an incident of abuse, if the child uses a term with which the educator is not familiar (e.g., a word for a part of the body), the educator should ask for clarification or have the child point to the body part. The educator should not disparage the child's choice of language or supply terms; rather, the educator should use the child's terms to put the child at ease and to avoid confusion. Educators can actually do more harm by probing for answers or supplying children with terms or information. Several major child sexual abuse cases have been dismissed in court because it was felt that the initial interviewers had biased the children. Additionally, it is important for the educator to not display feelings of anger, disgust, or disapproval toward the parents or the child for any action disclosed.
If the child wishes to show his or her injuries to the educator, he or she should be allowed to do so. The educator should never insist on seeing the child's injuries. At no time should the child be asked or forced to remove clothing. It may be important to have the school nurse present should a child decide to remove his or her clothes.
If further action is to be taken, the child should be told what will happen and when. The educator should assure the child of support and assistance throughout the process and should follow through on the assurances. It is important that the onus or responsibility not be placed on the child, nor should the child be asked to conceal from the parents that the conversation has taken place or that further action is contemplated.
The educator should be especially sensitive to the safety of the child following the disclosure. Ask the child if he or she feels safe returning home and observe how this question is answered. While CPS must be involved in any situation of suspected maltreatment, it is particularly important to involve CPS or law enforcement immediately in situations where the child's imminent safety is a concern. If a CPS caseworker needs to interview the child at school, the school should provide a private place for the interview. In addition, ensure that the interview location does not alert peers and other classmates to the presence of a CPS caseworker. The child's right to confidentiality must be respected.
If it is necessary for the CPS caseworker to remove the child from school for a medical examination, the school may request a written release from the caseworker, or this may be an established element of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the school and CPS. This varies by locale and it is important to know the practice and requirements of a particular school.
Talking with the Parents
Some educators may feel that it is important to contact parents to inform them that the school has made a report of suspected child abuse and neglect, because they feel that contact will help maintain the parents' relationship with the school and keep the door open for further communication. It is very rarely appropriate, however, for educators to communicate directly with parents regarding alleged child maltreatment. CPS caseworkers and law enforcement are trained and primarily responsible for contacting and discussing these concerns with parents. The following issues may arise if educators seek to talk with parents before reporting:
- The danger to the child may increase, particularly if the child disclosed the maltreatment.
- The parent may try to have the child recant upon learning that the child has told someone about the abuse.
- The parent may flee or withdraw the child from school.
- The risk for suicide increases for both the victim and the perpetrator immediately after a report is made in sexual abuse cases, especially in cases of incest. It is crucial that such cases be handled swiftly by experts.
There may be instances when a parent contacts a school regarding a report made to CPS. Many school systems have one point of contact to handle CPS reports, such as the school social worker, nurse, or principal. The educator should listen to parents and refer them to that point of contact. In talking with the parents, the educator should respond in a professional, direct, and honest manner without displaying anger, shock, or an insinuation of guilt. It is critical to remember that the educator should not reveal any information pertinent to the report made to CPS or law enforcement. Parents also should be informed about the limitations to confidentiality of the present discussion. Further threats or revelations of abuse typically require the educator to reveal what was discussed to a third party (e.g., CPS).
Occasionally, an angry parent will come to school demanding to know why someone is "telling me how to raise my children." The parent may feel betrayed or that someone has "gone behind their back" because the school did not communicate with him or her directly. Even though CPS caseworkers are legally mandated not to reveal the name of the referral source, the parent often suspects the source of the report. If an angry parent appears at school, the educator should attempt to diffuse the situation by remaining calm and maintaining a professional demeanor. The educator should be mindful of his or her own safety, as well as the safety of others, if the parent is threatening or violent. School protocol should delineate who needs to be contacted in such situations. An angry parent usually will calm down to a reasonable degree if he or she feels listened to and is treated with respect.
Child Abuse Within the School
It is extremely disturbing for most educators to consider that a fellow colleague might be abusing children. In the event that this does occur, however, children need special protection. A common response when a fellow educator is suspected of abuse, especially if that person is popular or a long-time employee, is to deny or ignore it. Sometimes the abuser is transferred to another school. Even with a suspension or reprimand, the violation is likely to recur in the absence of intervention and monitoring.
If a child reports that he or she is being sexually, physically, or even emotionally abused by school personnel, the educator should remember that it takes courage for an abused child to talk to someone. The educator must consider facts and consistencies. Older children may invent stories, but they usually contain obvious inconsistencies. The educator should follow school policy and procedures, which usually involve contacting CPS. CPS personnel then interview the child or refer the allegations to law enforcement (depending on the State's laws) to determine if the child knows anyone else to whom this has happened. If so, the CPS investigator should talk with any other victims. Protocols usually require immediate notification of the school administrator. The situation should not be discussed among other school staff. The accused has a reputation and the right to know of the accusation, but it is the investigator (who may be a CPS caseworker or law enforcement) who should talk with the accused colleague. Not doing so often leads to a witch-hunt atmosphere and is not beneficial to students or faculty. It also is inappropriate to ask the children to tell their stories initially in front of the accused. There is a significant difference in power and resources between teachers and students.
It is important to remember that schools are mandated reporters whether the abuser is an outsider or a school employee. Under State child abuse and neglect reporting statutes, educators have the same liabilities for failing to report suspected incidents perpetrated by colleagues as for incidents resulting from interfamilial abuse or neglect. If allegations are made and there is suspicion of abuse, CPS or law enforcement must become involved.
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