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Child Abuse and Neglect: What To Watch for, What To Do

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The following questions and answers are based on an interview with Joy R. Byers, coordinator of public awareness for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse; a booklet prepared by her organization, Educators, Schools, and Child Abuse; and a book published by the National Education Association, Child Abuse and Neglect: A Teacher's Handbook for Detection, Reporting and Classroom Management.

What are the signs of abuse or neglect?

There is a wide range of physical and emotional indicators that could signal the presence of neglect or of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in children. Some of these include:

Extensive bruises, especially around the head or face; burns, whiplike marks, awkward movements or soreness, extreme sensitivity to pain, bald spots.

Withdrawal of interest in school, poorer than normal performance, behavioral problems, fighting, or stealing.

Psychosomatic illnesses, delays in speaking and understanding language, immature behavior for age group, reluctance to go home after school.

In the case of sexual abuse, seemingly promiscuous behavior or more sexual knowledge than appropriate for the child's age.

In cases of neglect, inappropriate clothing for the weather, hunger, no lunch money, unkempt appearance.


Are school officials legally required to report child abuse?


Yes. In every state and the District of Columbia, educators are required by law to report suspected child abuse. Educators mandated to report include teachers, principals, counselors, school nurses, and staff members in residential institutions, day-care centers, and summer camps.

A suspicion of child abuse generally means, by law, that the person who reports has "reasonable cause to believe" or "reasonable cause to know or suspect" that the child has been mistreated. Educators do not have to know that abuse actually took place.

Some laws go further to require that reports be made of circumstances that could result in future child abuse--for example, if a teacher learned that a child would be unsupervised while the parents were vacationing.


How does one report child abuse?


In most states, reports may be made orally to the mandated agency, usually the social-services, family-services, or child-protective-services department. In many school districts, the law allows teachers to report to the principal, who is responsible for notifying authorities. Some communities have hot lines for telephone reports.

Many states require that the oral report be followed by a written report, usually within 24 to 48 hours. School-district policy may require that school officials receive a copy of the report, which is kept in a confidential file separate from the child's school records.

Educators should contact their district office for specific regulations in their area.

Before reporting, teachers should have prepared any notes they may have taken on the child's appearance, bruises, or actions that have given them reason to suspect abuse, as well as on any contacts with the parents or other school officials.

It is also a good idea to discuss with an administrator what support the teacher will receive after making the report, if the parents become hostile or try to remove the child from class.


Can school officials be held liable if they do not report suspicions that a child has been abused?


Yes. State laws generally provide that failure to report is a crime, usually a misdemeanor. Penalties vary by state, but may range from a few days in jail to a year's imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Criminal liability, in most states, occurs only if the educator willfully or knowingly fails to report. However, educators may be judged to have civil liability for negligence of their duties and be subject to legal and administrative penalties.


What if a principal refuses to report a teacher's suspicions? Could both be held liable?

Again, state laws and district regulations vary, but many states consider every school professional responsible for reporting to the designated authorities. Some administrators may not be aware of their legal responsibility, or may think that reporting will reflect negatively on their school.

Notifying a superior--rather than the mandated agency--does not release a teacher from liability. Whether or not an administrator refuses to report, the teacher or other school employee is legally liable until a report is made. It is also important to remember that failure to report may leave the child in serious danger.

To reduce the pressure on an individual teacher to report, the nea suggests that schools designate a team composed of the teacher, school counselor, administrators, social worker, and nurse, to discuss the potential report and provide follow-up.

What if the suspicions turn out to be unfounded? Could a parent sue school officials?

All states provide immunity, or protection from liability, for a professional who reports suspected child abuse. It is highly unlikely that an educator would be sued for reporting, and if this did happen, the educator who reported in good faith would not be found liable.

What happens after a report is made?

The social-service agency will begin an investigation, talk to the teacher and other school personnel, interview the family, and try to substantiate or disprove the suspicions.

During the investigation, it is important for school staff members to be supportive of the parents as well as the child, recognizing that the family as a whole may need to receive professional help. A hostile approach may cause the family to withdraw further.

What can school personnel do, other than reporting, to help the abused child? How involved should the school get in individual cases?

Teachers and administrators should make themselves available to the child and parents, to listen to their concerns. Before or after reporting, the teacher may want to have a conference with the parents.

It is natural for a teacher to become involved, because he or she sees the child daily and is aware of the child's behavior and appearance. But teachers should avoid playing the role of investigator or therapist.

School personnel should be aware of their district's policies on dealing with allegations of abuse before the situation arises. There are many inservice-training programs available and materials for educators.

Will school personnel be asked to testify in court?

Most cases of child abuse do not get to court. In those few cases that do, however, it is likely that the child's teacher would be called to testify to the child's behavior or appearance on specific occasions.

How likely is it that a child will be placed in foster care?

This is a last resort in the most severe cases. The goal of social-service agencies is to keep the family together, through counseling and parent training.

Who are child abusers? Are there problems that typically accompany abuse?

Parents who abuse children may have been abused themselves. They may have unrealistically high expectations for their children, and may feel inadequate or ineffective when the child is not able to reach those goals.

Family problems that can accompany abuse include financial difficulties, drug and alcohol abuse, job loss, marital difficulties, social isolation, inability to cope with crises.

Although it is perceived to be a problem that primarily affects the disadvantaged, social-service agencies stress that child abuse cuts across all social, economic, and racial lines, as the Steinberg case reveals.

Abuse in financially stable families is often less visible because they are better able to afford private counseling, medical care, and lawyers, and have other means of concealing or quietly dealing with the problem.

How many children die from abuse?

About 1,300 children nationwide were reported to have died from abuse or neglect in 1986, according to the ncpca More than 100 of those deaths were in New York City. Authorities say most of the deaths are the result of negligence rather than brutality by parents or guardians. Only a handful of abuse cases result in criminal charges for murder or manslaughter.

Where can school people get more information?

The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse publishes a catalog listing many pamphlets for educators, parents, and children on various parenting issues and childhood problems. It also publishes the booklet, Educators, Schools, and Child Abuse, available for $1.50 per copy, with discounts for quantity orders. Further information on both publications is available from the committee at P.O. Box 2866, Chicago, Ill. 60690.

The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect also provides publications and resource materials. Its address is P.O. Box 1182, Washington, D.C. 20013.

The National Child Abuse Hot Line, a nonprofit service located in Hollywood, Calif., can refer callers to authorities in their area. The service also can provide educators with advice on specific cases or how to report abuse. Children also may call this number to receive advice. The toll-free number is (800) 422-4453, and the service operates 24 hours a day.

The National Education Association's 1987 handbook for teachers, How Schools Can Help Combat Child Abuse and Neglect, is available for $10.95 per copy in paper and $19.95 per copy clothbound at nea Professional Library, P.O. Box 509, West Haven, Conn., 06516; (203) 934-2669. The publication's stock number is 0-8106-3295-0.

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