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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|
Providing Support After the Report: What Schools Can Offer
Reporting suspected cases of maltreatment is just the beginning of the child protection process. Treatment, rehabilitation, strengthening the family, and preventing future abuse still lie ahead. Traditionally, the roles of the school and the educator in dealing with child maltreatment have ended with reporting, but this is changing. Increasingly, educators are providing assistance and support to child protective services (CPS) staff by sharing relevant information about families and children after they have been reported; providing services to the child, parents, and the family; and participating on multidisciplinary teams. Schools also are actively involved in community efforts to reduce the incidence of child maltreatment.
Sharing Relevant Information
Although CPS is responsible for case management and follow up after the report has been made, CPS caseworkers will frequently find it necessary to consult with school personnel when assessing the family and planning treatment. School personnel often have information (either in records or through personal knowledge) concerning the child's or family's strengths and weaknesses. This information is invaluable to CPS staff as they seek to make an accurate assessment and formulate realistic treatment goals and objectives for the family.
In providing this information, schools must be conscious of the rights of children and parents. Schools can be an excellent resource for aiding CPS, but great care must be taken to ensure the confidentiality of information and to share it only with those persons and in circumstances designated by law.
Support for the Child, the Parents, and the Family
Educators are in a unique position to provide valuable support to maltreated children and their families. The expertise needed to assess special needs and design programs to fit those needs already exists within the schools. Highly trained educators, already in the schools and skilled in working with children and parents, can be of great help to maltreated children and their families.
General Considerations for Helping in Cases of Maltreatment
The lives of maltreated children, even after the report of abuse or neglect, may be filled with stress. Schools, however, can provide a constant, stable environment. Sensitivity to a child's need for consistency is vital. Something as basic as having their own desks for which they are responsible can be very beneficial. Classroom teachers, school social workers, and school counselors should be mindful of a child's need for consistency and try to find ways to meet that need.
Court involvement is another issue in the lives of maltreated children. Courts often present a scary image for the child. Typically, the child who knows his or her case is going to court may feel agitated, anxious, and insecure. The child may exhibit behavior while at school, such as acting out or being withdrawn, that attests to these fears. If the educator is aware of the court involvement, special care and consideration for what the child is experiencing is appropriate. Demystifying the court system and process can be an educational experience and benefit all children. Schools may want to take students to visit a courtroom or meet with an interested judge or lawyer to help facilitate this.
Some maltreated children are placed in foster homes if CPS feels that they will be unsafe at home. Separation from parents, no matter how abusive or neglectful, can have a profoundly traumatic impact on a child. CPS often will attempt to place children in the same school system to provide some consistency. When a child has been placed in foster care, the school will be contacted by CPS. The person responsible for enrolling the child differs from agency to agency and depends on State and local statutes regarding confidentiality, so the foster parent might not have this opportunity to meet with school staff. Since some foster families may be overwhelmed with caring for an upset or depressed child, they may find little time to make contact with the school early in placement.
In addition to working with the foster parents, educators need to be sensitive to the needs of those children in substitute care. Often, they are still working through feelings of separation and loss. No matter what the parents may have done, the child still wonders about being sent away, often leading to feelings of guilt, anger, helplessness, or depression. The best way for educators to deal with a child in this situation is to contact his or her caseworker and, if appropriate, ask for more information about the child's background to understand his or her needs better. There may be several things the educator can do to support these children. For example, children may need to understand that people do not perceive them differently because of being involved in substitute care, and that their possessions at school are still their own.
School Activities and Programs Supporting the Maltreated Child
The regular school program, if properly structured, can offer opportunities to support the maltreated child. Negative self-concepts common among these children can be offset by positive school experiences and a sense of achievement and accomplishment. The feeling of isolation that maltreated children frequently experience can be counteracted by providing increased contact with classmates and the chance to make new friends. Warm and sympathetic teachers can allow children to see adults in a positive, supportive, and caring role. Creative classroom experiences can further enhance the healing process. Additionally, educators should be mindful of instances when classmates may have heard about the abuse or subsequent actions. These classmates also may ask questions or need support and reassurance. Realize that addressing their concerns or comments can present some difficulties due to issues of confidentiality.
Schools can and frequently do serve as a focal point for special services to children and families. The expertise needed to assess and design programs to address these special needs already exists within the schools.
Schools have found that structuring learning projects for maximum cooperation, reducing reliance on competitive activities, peer mediation and conflict resolution, and an emphasis on effective problem solving helps reduce threatening behavior and benefits abused and neglected children.34 By interjecting specific types of information into classroom activities that are designed to help all children, teachers also may help abused and neglected children. For example, two issues that often create problems for victims of abuse and neglect are recognizing and expressing feelings and making decisions. Many teachers have successfully designed and used activities to recognize feelings. A popular tool for younger students is a "feelings barometer" that encourages children to move an indicator to different facial expressions to show how they are feeling and to discuss why. Many teachers also make creative problem solving an integral part of the curriculum. In this way, all children learn how to make more effective decisions, and maltreated children may feel particularly empowered by enhancing this skill.
Sometimes additional measures are needed since children with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities appear to experience higher rates of maltreatment than do other children.35 A national study, completed in 1993, found that children with disabilities were 1.7 times more likely to be maltreated than children without disabilities.36 Schools already provide a number of special services to children who require them. These services, each backed by qualified professionals who administer them, may include:
- Diagnosis and assessment of a variety of issues or conditions, including academic, learning, behavior, health, and social adjustment problems;
- Development of individualized educational plans;
- Support services including counseling; speech, hearing, and language therapy; behavioral management; special education; and health care.
Many schools have formed professional review teams to develop individual educational plans for physically and mentally challenged children, in accordance with Education for All Handicapped Children Act/IDEA (P.L. 94-142). Team members are skilled in diagnosing and assessing special problems and tailoring individual programs to address those problems. Teams routinely work with parents and other educators; call upon support services, as indicated; and annually review each child's individual plan.
|Ways to Address the Needs of Maltreated Children in the Classroom|
|Inability to express feelings.||Use feelings as a barometer. Begin class or morning with discussion of how students feel.|
|Difficulty making decisions.||Teach the use of a formula for solving problems and provide sample problems so the students can try it.|
|Lack of cooperation with others.||Structure learning projects to maximize use of cooperative activities and solutions. Reduce competitive activities.|
|Heightened interpersonal conflict.||Teach conflict resolution and peer mediation skills.|
When the school made a report about Harvey's apparent neglect to CPS, it began a chain of events that were exceedingly helpful to Harvey and his family. Harvey was born with a condition that necessitated him having a catheter that had to be drained during school hours. The school was not informed of this, nor did they realize that 7-year-old Harvey was trying to do this hygienic duty himself, often with difficulty. Because of this and of poor hygiene in general, the odor coming from Harvey's desk was overwhelming. He also seemed quite slow and withdrawn and the teacher wondered if there was some developmental delay. Since he was a new student in his first-grade class, not much was known about him. Calls to the home went unanswered. A letter requesting that the mother call was unheeded. The school social worker, who made a visit to the home, found two younger children who appeared to be alone. Believing that this was a clear case of neglect, she immediately filed a report. When CPS investigated, they discovered that Harvey's single mother was newly immigrated to the United States. She spoke very little English and could not read or write. She had secured a job as a restroom attendant, leaving her other children unattended when she went to work. She had little idea of how to care for Harvey's disability.
In the end, the school was of significant help to Harvey and his family. CPS was able to get Harvey's younger siblings into the daycare program located in the local high school. Harvey was referred for testing by the school psychologist who discovered that he was quite bright. His withdrawn manner had been due to his embarrassment about feeling different. The school social worker met with Harvey's mom to help her understand what her children were learning and to support her in getting them to school and daycare. The mother met with one of the teachers for tutoring in English, since the town did not have an English as a Second Language program. A visiting nurse helped to educate both Harvey and his mother about how to care for Harvey's medical condition. In addition, Harvey was referred to a local pediatrician for care, and through this referral, he received services to correct his problem.
School Programs for Parents
Schools typically offer both direct and indirect support to families of maltreated children. None of these services is new, and schools have provided them for years. It is merely their application for abused and neglected children that may be new.
Educators that serve children with disabilities are already working with parents to develop individual educational plans. These skills can be transferred to planning programs for maltreated children that focus on their needs and involve their parents. When a problem is identified, parents can be brought in to help deal with it. Concrete, targeted suggestions can be made and cooperative agreements can be worked out between school and the parents. The plan is more likely to be successful if the presentation is positive, outlines what the school is prepared to do to help the parents, and includes recommendations for the parents.
When families with maltreated children experience financial difficulties, schools may be able to provide free or reduced-price breakfasts, lunches, field trips, and extracurricular activities. For children who need them, the school may be able to arrange for glasses, hearing aids, or prosthetic devices. Many schools also maintain an emergency supply of clothing and shoes so that children without them can receive them quickly and quietly. Helping the family address financial difficulties can lessen the level of stress and frustration, which helps lower the risk of maltreatment.
In many school districts, school social workers, guidance counselors, or school nurses make home visits to assess family needs and to arrange for needed support services. Others arrange for daycare, afterschool care, or special programs such as home tutoring for chronically ill children.
Parents involved in child abuse and neglect are frequently lonely, isolated, and experiencing periods of great personal or family stress. Many schools already provide programs and services that can directly benefit these parents, such as:
- Education programs that emphasize the unique skills required of parents and help them understand that these skills are learned, not instinctive.
- Early childhood education programs that delineate the process of child development, outline typical capabilities relative to the developmental stage, and suggest ways to enhance the child's development.
- Counseling programs that range from job skill training to substance abuse counseling.
- Adult education programs that include high school completion and equivalency programs, occupational training, leisure time activities, and recreational programs.
Such programs offer direct help to parents, but they also provide parents of maltreated children with opportunities to socialize, to enhance self-confidence, and to pursue new interests. These benefits are important in breaking the pattern of isolation common among abusive and neglectful parents.
Perhaps the most forgotten victims are the parents whose child was sexually abused by someone within the community. These parents are expected to support and advocate for their abused child. Often, little recognition is given to the fact that these parents may be having problems too. Parents often feel guilty over being unable to protect their children. Educators can be instrumental in recognizing that these parents have these kinds of feelings and may need support so they may help their own children. Sensitive educators might acknowledge this in their dealings with such parents. A distressed parent also might welcome a referral for professional support.
Schools can offer indirect support to families by providing education and assistance to the community at large and by making their extensive facilities available for support groups and crisis nurseries. All that is needed is acceptance of the school's critical role in child abuse and neglect and a willingness to be involved in its elimination. (See A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice for philosophical tenets regarding maltreating parents.)
Child Abuse and Neglect Multidisciplinary Teams
Multidisciplinary teams are a concept that refers to teams inside and outside the school. Within the school, Child Protection Teams or crisis teams are good examples of this approach. These teams are composed of various professionals within the school and are dedicated to reviewing and responding to child abuse reports or a variety of school-based crises, such as substance abuse, death, and other emergencies. By bringing together professionals from different perspectives, children can be served more effectively because team members have specific roles and expertise.
There are also community multidisciplinary teams. A community approach to child maltreatment makes optimal use of the special skills and knowledge of various professionals so that family and community needs are met. Many communities are turning to multidisciplinary, child maltreatment-case consultation teams as a means of ensuring integrated investigation, planning, and service delivery. These community teams usually include representatives from health or mental health, CPS and social services, law enforcement, and education agencies. Members bring with them a wide range of backgrounds and a diversity of diagnostic, assessment, and treatment skills. They meet together regularly to assess cases of child maltreatment and to recommend treatment programs. Team members are able to commit services from the agencies they represent and can call upon a broad range of services, resources, skills, and programs to help families.
Child maltreatment-case consultation teams also frequently serve as a forum for resolving the issues and conflicts that inevitably arise whenever difficult social problems must be addressed by multiple public and private agencies. As they work together, team members come to know, understand, and appreciate each other's functions. Within the team framework, problems can be addressed quickly when they arise. If a particular recommendation has not been proven effective, another can be considered. As team members, educators can make additional contributions to the team. They can lend their expertise in the areas of child development, developmental disabilities, and the educational needs of children.
To foster coordination, some communities are establishing child protection coordinating committees or task forces, which provide an organizational structure so community agencies and resources involved in meeting the needs of maltreated children and their families can work together. This community effort can define roles and responsibilities, increase communication, identify gaps in services, and avoid duplication of services, which enhances the efficient use of existing services and resources. Typically, CPS has the primary responsibility for organizing the committee. Educators are one of the many groups called upon to work together along with multiple agencies and professional disciplines to maximize the services available to the community. If there is no child protection coordinating committee in a community, educators may be able to help institute one. Participation in such a body also should be addressed in a school's policy.
There are a variety of community-based programs designed to meet the needs of families and children at risk. For example, New York City Public Schools, in collaboration with the Children's Aid Society, the New York City Board of Education, and community members, designed and implemented a project initially intended to curb criminal activity among youth. The program arranged for the schools to be open for extended hours and to serve nutritional breakfasts to students, as well as to help students with homework and medical services.37 The program ended up also supporting at-risk families, however, and the local child protection agency felt its clients' needs were successfully served by the program.38
For more information on school-based support services and programs, obtain a copy of School-based Child Maltreatment Programs: Synthesis of Lessons Learned available at: http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/focus/schoolbased/.
This material may be freely reproduced and distributed. However, when doing so, please credit Child Welfare Information Gateway.