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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|
Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect
In addition to trying to help families in which maltreatment is suspected, the involvement of educators in reporting child abuse and neglect is guided by Federal standards and regulations and mandated by State and local laws, which identify what is required of the educator and how that obligation is to be fulfilled. Schools are frequently concerned with creating protocols to enable them to address maltreatment issues more efficiently. Established protocols help address concerns over quality control, fear of lawsuits, and the protection of staff in reporting cases, as well as ensure that there are effective steps for helping children.29
The Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-36) included the reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in its Title I, Sec. 111. CAPTA provides minimum standards for defining child physical abuse and neglect and sexual abuse that States must incorporate into their statutory definitions in order to receive Federal funds. Under this Act, child maltreatment is defined as:
- Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation;
- An act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
A "child" under this definition generally means a person who is under the age of 18 or who is not an emancipated minor. In cases of child sexual abuse, a "child" is one who has not attained the age of 18 or the age specified by the child protection law of the State in which the child resides, whichever is younger. While CAPTA provides specific definitions for sexual abuse and for special cases related to withholding or failing to provide medically indicated treatment, it does not provide such definitions for other types of maltreatment—physical abuse, neglect, or psychological maltreatment. Each State has statutes providing that information.
Also at the Federal level, the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 (P.L. 93-380), provides standards and regulations that are relevant to educators for reporting child abuse and neglect. While amended numerous times since it was first authorized, FERPA still governs the release of information from school records.
In a small number of cases, it may be necessary to consult school records to determine if a report of suspected child abuse and neglect should be made. Usually, parental consent is required before releasing information contained in school records. However, there are exceptions that can apply in cases of suspected child abuse and neglect. At the time of publication, a proposed amendment to FERPA would extend these same provisions to homeschooled children.
All States, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories have reporting statutes for child abuse and neglect. These statutes outline who must report, to whom the abuse or neglect must be reported, and the form and content of the report. Given the diversity of statutes, educators should be familiar with or obtain a copy of the law in their State.
Most States specifically require educators to report suspected child maltreatment unless educators are grouped under the category of "anyone." Some States specifically define what is meant by an "educator" (e.g., teachers, principals, administrators, school nurses, school social workers, and guidance counselors) in any school, whether public or private, day or residential. Those professionals mandated to report vary from State to State. Educators should check their State reporting statute to determine who has been designated as a mandated reporter. They also should be familiar with their school system's policy and procedures regarding child abuse and neglect reporting. Additionally, it should be noted that when schools have a Child Protection Team, an educator's report to the team may or may not free him or her from further obligation, and a child protective services (CPS) caseworker may still contact him or her. The Child Protection Team representative would make the actual report to CPS. This regulation also should be researched within the educator's own State.
What to Report
States specify what can be defined as child maltreatment in their particular jurisdiction, often specifically defining nonaccidental physical abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional (or psychological) maltreatment. Many of the definitions for sexual abuse include the production of child pornography or compelling children to view sexually explicit materials or acts. Some States require that domestic violence within a child's family be reported to CPS, as it may adversely affect the child. Every school should have or know how to access the definitions for abuse and neglect in their jurisdiction.
While States require the reporting of suspected abuse, no State requires that the reporter have conclusive proof that the abuse or neglect occurred before reporting. The law clearly specifies that reports must be made when the educator "suspects" or "has reasonable cause to believe" that there is abuse. In any case, the intent is clear—incidents are to be reported as soon as they are noticed. Waiting for conclusive proof may involve further risk to the child.
When to Report
Again, State statutes differ as to when a report must be made. While early reporting is vital, educators may find it useful to keep notes on behaviors, bruises, or other potentially relevant information regarding the child. These informal, personally kept notes may be invaluable not only in filing a report, but in providing information to CPS. Notes should be taken even after the report is made in order to provide updates for CPS investigators. It is important to realize, however, that personal notes also can be subpoenaed if the case goes to court.
State and local statutes, as well as school system policies, vary regarding whether oral or written reports are necessary. Some require only an oral report, while others ask the reporter to follow up with a written report within a specific period of time. Secured Internet reporting to CPS also is allowed in some States. Some States and school districts identify special reporting requirements.
Where to Report
Every school should have identified, current, and accessible contact information for the appropriate agency for reporting suspected child maltreatment. State law specifies the agency that will receive reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Usually this agency is a State's department of social services, human resources, family and children's services, CPS, or department of children and youth services. Other agencies mandated to receive reports may include law enforcement, the health department, the county or district attorney's office, and the juvenile or district court.
The local department of social services or other receiving agency may maintain a special child abuse and neglect unit, usually CPS. If there is no special unit, the local department itself will have CPS responsibility. The CPS unit receives and investigates all reports of suspected child maltreatment (that meet the State's statutory definitions) and may be involved in treatment and rehabilitation of affected families, by either performing such services or referring families to other agencies.
It is important to understand who receives reports of suspected child abuse and neglect in a particular jurisdiction. Requirements of confidentiality should be observed so that reports are made only to authorized persons. The State reporting statute will provide this information. An attorney should be consulted if questions arise.
How to Report
Educators should follow local school system policies and procedures for reporting suspected abuse. These build upon State statutes, which vary regarding the form and content of reports of suspected maltreatment. All States require that an oral or written report (or both) be made to the agency or agencies responsible for child abuse and neglect. When two reports are required, the oral report is usually required immediately, with the written report often following within 24 to 48 hours.
Some State statutes will specify the type of information to submit in a report of suspected child maltreatment. Usually this includes:
- Child's name, age, gender, and address;
- Parent's name and address;
- Nature and extent of the injury or condition observed;
- Prior injuries and when observed;
- Actions taken by the reporter (e.g., talking with the child);
- Where the act occurred;
- Reporter's name, location, and contact information (sometimes not required, but extremely valuable to CPS staff).
In some States, additional information is required. This may include any previous injury observed by the reporter to the child or to a sibling; any information that would aid in establishing the cause of the injury; information that would aid in identifying the person responsible for the injury; if a previous report has been made to CPS; and other information about the child and family that will help CPS in their assessment of the risk of maltreatment to the child.
To review a summary of reporting laws for each State, visit the State statutes section of Child Welfare Information Gateway's website at http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/state/.
To assist citizens making oral reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, some States maintain a tollfree, 24-hour telephone hotline just for receiving reports of suspected maltreatment. (See Appendix C—State Child Abuse Reporting Numbers.) Anyone may use hotlines to report an incident of suspected child abuse and neglect anywhere in their State.
To facilitate written reports, most States and some local school districts provide a reporting form. Schools should keep a supply of these forms for more efficient reporting. An educator would not be excused for failing to report a suspected case of maltreatment because a reporting form was unavailable. The reporter may submit a report using any form, so long as the required information is provided.
Local Policies and Procedures Regarding Reporting
Since the early 1980s, school systems and local boards of education across the country have enacted school policies and procedures on child abuse and neglect. The policies and procedures support State reporting laws and often provide internal mechanisms to follow when a case is reported.
Developing Local Policies and Procedures
Enacting local policies is a good first step for a school system beginning a child abuse and neglect prevention program. As an example of one effort, several years ago the Children's Trust Fund of Massachusetts offered to review reporting protocols for any Massachusetts school that wished to improve them. The Children's Trust Fund published a guide, Designing and Implementing a School Reporting Protocol: A How-to Manual for Massachusetts Educators, to help schools develop effective protocols and consider the development of a Child Protection Team.30 A protocol clearly delineates duties and responsibilities for all staff. Equally important, it provides administrative backup for educators who do most of the reporting.
Educators are encouraged to learn whether their school system has a board policy or an administrative procedure for reporting suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. If no such policy or procedure exists, one should be developed.
There are several important questions to consider when designing a school protocol, such as:
- Does the protocol reference the State law that requires educators who have "reasonable cause to believe" that a child is being abused or neglected to report such suspicion to the local CPS?
- Who within the school does the educator notify if they have suspicions? Who does the classroom teacher notify? A nurse? The principal? A school social worker?
- What specific information does the reporter need to know in order to report?
- What other school personnel should be involved?
- Who makes the report to CPS? How? Who is responsible for monitoring or receiving feedback from CPS once the report is filed?
- What information should be included in the report? (This is dictated by State law and CPS policy.)
- Does the protocol indicate that all reports must be kept confidential and in a separate file from the students' regular school file?
- What follow-up is expected on reported cases?
- Does the protocol state that all school staff will receive notification of the protocol?
- What role will the school play in possible community or Child Protection Teams?
- What commitment does the school have to inservice training or community programs?31
Policies should be reviewed periodically with school staff (possibly during inservice training) so that everyone is reminded of the local school protocol, system procedures and policies, and State statutes.
Making the Report
Once an educator suspects that a child is being maltreated, he or she must waste no time in reporting. Making such a report sometimes feels risky and confusing to educators. The following checklist can be used to prepare information for a report:
- Does the educator know the procedure outlined in the reporting policy of the school? Does he or she have the necessary information required for a report? Does the school have the necessary report forms?
- Has the information been documented? Has it been written down to help organize it in the educator's mind?
- Has the information been analyzed? The educator should consider what causes him or her to suspect abuse or neglect in this particular case. The educator should list the symptoms—physical and behavioral.
- Has the reporter witnessed any parent-child interaction that may suggest possible abuse, such as belittling or threatening comments? Does the parent see the child as worthwhile, different from "normal" children, or hard to handle?
- Has the educator spoken with other professionals within the school? Do they have reason to suspect abuse or neglect? Why?
- Does the educator (or school) have the exact and current contact information of the agency where the reports should be made?
If the educator cannot answer all these questions affirmatively, he or she still needs to report immediately. However, organizing one's thoughts will help in simplifying the process. Additionally, there are some other questions the reporter may want to ask himself or herself in preparation for this process:
- Has the educator talked with his or her administrator about the support available once the report is made? Has the educator considered what will happen if the parents try to remove the child from the class?
- Has the educator set up a support system for him- or herself with other educators, professionals, or friends?32
Teamwork within a school cannot be overemphasized. For example, a classroom teacher concerned about bruises on a student might consult the school nurse. If a staff member notices unexplained behavior, a referral to the school social worker or psychologist might be in order. While it is important to respect a child's right to confidentiality, such a referral may be made in a confidential manner. The effectiveness of teamwork is another reason why many schools are adopting the Child Protection Team approach. Child protection team members play a variety of roles within the school, and they may shed light on the child's situation from a perspective that was not known or obvious to the reporter.
Difficulties That May Be Encountered When Reporting
A report of child maltreatment is not an accusation; rather, it is a request to determine if abuse or neglect has taken place and, if so, to begin the helping process. The reporting process, however, does not always proceed smoothly. Difficulties may be encountered that serve as barriers to reporting and discourage the educator from making future reports.
One of the biggest obstacles to reporting may be the feelings of the potential reporter. Some individuals would prefer not to get involved. As one educator put it:
"Although I realize that a child abuse report is not an accusation, I really hated to be the one to do it. What if the parents become angry with me? What if they pull their child out of my classroom? What if they see me as a troublemaker? I also wonder if I would be in any personal danger. Some of the abuse seems awfully violent. Will the parents come after me?"
These are typical concerns of educators and should be addressed. Parents who are subjects of a child abuse report typically feel angry. Anger is a natural response when threatened. If the parents angrily confront the reporter, however, a sensitive presentation with the desire to help may actually turn the parents into allies. These parents certainly have the right to pull their child out of a particular classroom, but only a small percentage actually do so, especially when the school makes clear its intention to help rather than punish.
When cultural values conflict with the laws of the State, this is problematic, but the laws remain the same. Where culturally based behaviors could be seen as abusive, it is usually the practice of CPS to try to educate the parents about the laws and to work with them. Some educators question their right to intervene in such instances. One educator described a family who had recently come to this country.
"In their country hitting the children severely is accepted practice," she said. "What right do I have to tell them to change their cultural values?"
One of the most difficult situations for educators is discovering that abuse or neglect is being perpetrated by someone they know well. It may be extremely difficult for an educator to face the fact that the child of a colleague or a neighbor is being maltreated, or that a respected member of the community is sexually abusing a child. This is a natural feeling, but it must be overcome. Even if an educator knows the abusive family well, making a report is still necessary. All children are protected by law and, no matter what the circumstances, the educator remains a mandated reporter.
While the report may help protect the child, the process of reporting suspected child maltreatment is often a stressful experience. Confidentiality issues limit those with whom the educator can discuss the situation. Many educators may benefit from identifying support mechanisms and coping strategies while going through the process. Some schools have Child Protection Teams that aid the process of reporting and provide support to the reporter. Other schools may have developed their own support strategies.
|For additional information regarding cultural issues as they relate to child maltreatment, see the following publications in the User Manual Series—A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice and Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers.|
Problems Internal to the School
On occasion, school personnel indicate that school administrators create obstacles to reporting. They may fail to make an official report of suspected maltreatment once a situation has been brought to their attention or make it difficult for other school personnel to report. This may be done for the same reasons discussed above or because the administrator does not want to "make waves." Such actions may be more than obstructive; they may be illegal.
Administrators who refuse to report or who make it difficult to report cause several problems for other adults on their staff. Not only does the educator feel unsupported and even undermined, but educators whose administrators do not report may be held liable for the unreported maltreatment. Thus, the educator is put in a position of being vulnerable to legal sanction or having to bypass the administrator. In some instances, central administrative staff may provide no backup to educators, thus undercutting the reporter who has acted in the best interests of the child and complied with the law. Suddenly reporters find their motives questioned. Superintendents or principals who fail to provide inservice training to staff to inform them of their legal obligations also may be an obstacle to reporting. Educators who do not know the signs and implications of child maltreatment or who are unaware of their legal responsibilities will be at a disadvantage and possibly, unwittingly, a disservice to children in need of assistance.
While some States allow anonymous reporting, the educator would not be protected, as there would be no proof that he or she had ever reported. It is difficult for the educator to know what to do or how to react to an unresponsive or obstructive administrator. The best answer is that it depends on the individual circumstances and available options. For instance, educators in certain locales may be able to develop a relationship with a CPS caseworker or with mental health, law enforcement, or other child welfare professionals who can help facilitate making a report. In other situations, there may be other school personnel, such as the school social worker or someone else in the school's administration, who may be willing to seek alternative avenues for reporting the situation.
Previous Experiences Reporting
Educators who have had a negative or difficult experience when reporting suspected maltreatment might be reluctant to become involved again. Such educators may feel that a previous case was not handled appropriately or to their satisfaction. These concerns are real and sometimes valid, but a previous bad experience does not mean that the next case will not be handled well. CPS agencies throughout the country are continually working to upgrade their services. In many communities, they are becoming steadily more responsive and highly skilled. After experiencing an unsatisfactory response with the CPS agency, however, the reporter should not hesitate to request that an agency supervisor intervene in the handling of the case. Exemptions are not granted to mandated reporters who have previously had a negative experience. In addition, while reporting does not guarantee that the situation will improve, not reporting virtually guarantees that the child will continue to be at risk if the abuse or neglect exists.
Belief That Nothing Will Be Done
Sometimes potential reporters believe that nothing will be done if they report, so they choose not to. Such reasoning often is faulty. If an incident of suspected child maltreatment is reported, some action will occur. At the very least, a record of the report will be made, the educator's legal obligation will be fulfilled, and the investigative process will begin. If the incident is not reported, however, it is likely that nothing will be done. Maltreated children cannot be protected unless they are first identified, and the key to identification is reporting. While not all calls result in an investigation, educators may not know what information was previously or subsequently reported about the child or the family. The cumulative effect of all the reports may allow CPS to substantiate a case and to provide help and intervention.
Some educators find it frustrating that CPS will not let them know whether the case is being investigated. Confidentiality laws and policies often make follow-up impossible. Educators may offer to keep in touch with CPS during the treatment phase, however, to help the children as much as possible. Some State laws will allow release of information from CPS to other professionals when the individual is a member of a multidisciplinary team.
Once the Report is Made
When a report of child maltreatment is filed, CPS makes several decisions. First, they must decide if the report meets the statutory criteria for child abuse or neglect. Then, they must investigate to ascertain if the abuse or neglect can be substantiated. CPS determines if the child is safe at home and, if not, what are the least intrusive interventions to assure the child's protection. Finally, CPS determines if there is a risk that the maltreatment will occur in the future. If the risk for future maltreatment exists, then CPS must offer or provide services to reduce the risk of abuse or neglect.
In some States, the court may become involved, particularly if the child is removed from the home. If a court is involved, usually a juvenile or family court is responsible for family well-being rather than a criminal court. However, increasingly in the case of sexual abuse, death, or extreme physical abuse, complaints are filed in criminal court.
In some instances, educators may be asked to appear in court as witnesses. It is important for them to remember that witnesses are not on trial. Usually, school staff will be called to help the child or present a more complete picture of the family situation. Exhibit 4-1 provides a list of guidelines for educators should they be required to appear in court.
Once the educator has followed the school system's protocol and the situation has been referred to CPS, in general, the process for each case is similar. Exhibit 4-2 provides an overview of the CPS process.
Tips for Educators Going to Court
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