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Inadequate Teacher Training Is Cited As a Cause of Unreported Child Abuse

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Suspected cases of child abuse often go unreported by elementary-school teachers because they are inadequately trained to recognize and report the problem, according to a report that will be released this fall.

The National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse has released preliminary results from a national survey of teachers' knowledge of child abuse, as well as child-protection policies in the teachers' districts.

The survey was conducted in 1988 following reports that while 57 percent of the 2.1 million child-abuse cases reported in 1986 involved school-age children, only 16.3 percent of the reports originated with school personnel.

Researchers for the national child-advocacy group based in Chicago say their preliminary results show child-abuse education programs must be improved if teachers are to fulfill their responsibilities as mandated reporters of suspected abuse.

"Education is a critical component in the reduction of child-abuse cases nationwide," said Kathleen A. Casey, an analyst working on the report.

"New parents must learn, children must be taught how to protect themselves, and we must educate the mandated reporters," she added.

Ms. Casey said it appears that teachers "are doing their jobs, but they apparently are not getting the training and support they need."

Some 480 teachers of kindergarten through 6th grade in 39 school districts responded to the survey. Seventy-two percent said they have suspected a child of being abused or neglected at one time or another.

Of those, 90 percent indicated that they had reported their suspicions. But the reports were most commonly made to other school personnel, rather than to child protective-service agencies, as mandated by law in every state. Only 20 percent of the respondents had reported the suspected abuse correctly, the report states.

The majority of teachers surveyed cited lack of knowledge of detection methods and reporting requirements and fear of legal retribution as the main barriers preventing them from correctly reporting their suspicions.

Only half of the teachers over all said they had received training in recognizing the symptoms of abuse, as well as in how to report or prevent it.

"I would like to know more about what I can do; who to call; what other actions I can take in these cases," the report quoted one teacher as saying. "I have been teaching for 10 years, and during that time I have had only one meeting about child abuse and neglect."

The report also indicated many teachers are unaware of their districts' policies on reporting suspected abuse, and that required courses for students on avoiding abuse are not being taught.

Ninety-five percent of the superintendents of the districts included in the survey said their systems had a written procedure for identifying and reporting suspected abuse. Yet only 57 percent of the teachers from the same districts said their schools had such a policy.

In addition, 59 percent of the superintendents said their districts mandate school programs to teach children how to avoid abuse, but only 27 percent of the teachers noted the existence of such policies.

Half of the teachers said their schools provided some type of inservice training on child abuse and related topics. Of those, 61 percent said the training was mandatory.

Teachers said their training covered the issues of recognizing victims of abuse and their responsibility to report their suspicions.

The least amount of emphasis, they said, was placed on intervention skills for families in crisis.

All states require that suspicion of child abuse be reported to child-protection agencies, and most laws protect professionals who report abuse in good faith from being sued, according to the report.

Teachers, however, said lack of knowledge on detection and reporting of abuse, combined with the fear of lawsuits if reports turn out to be wrong, were strong disincentives to speaking out.

"Teachers are afraid to report questionable suspicions for fear of false information causing further or new problems," said one teacher quoted in the report.

The majority of teachers surveyed said they thought child-abuse prevention programs were effective, and they were willing to implement them if they received proper training.

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