Schools Joining National Fight Against Child Abuse

By Anne Bridgman — January 25, 1984 11 min read

For the second time in as many months, a television dramatization of a serious child-abuse problem has drawn a record number of viewers. Like “Adam,” which documented one family’s tragedy with a missing child, last week’s ABC-tv movie, “Something About Amelia,” dramatized a form of child abuse that has been called the last taboo--incest.

The program was watched by an estimated 60 million viewers, according to Jane Paley, director of community relations for the network.

Women’s centers and child-abuse organizations, whose hotline telephone numbers were listed locally following the pro-gram, were “deluged with calls,” Ms. Paley said.

The ABC movie offers the latest piece of evidence that child abuse--a problem of increasing magnitude nationally, health and social-service officials report--has become a topic of serious concern to many Americans.

In 1982, 1.4 million cases of child abuse were reported to child-welfare authorities, according to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (nccan), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that coordinates and disseminates information on child abuse and neglect. The number of such cases has risen annually since 1976, when the center began compiling statistics. The center also reports that at least 1,000 and perhaps as many as 5,000 children died last year as a result of physical abuse or severe neglect.

Child abuse, as defined by the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse (ncpca), is a nonaccidental injury or pattern of injuries to a child for which there is no “reasonable” explanation.

As the issue of child abuse and neglect becomes more visible, educators nationwide are taking part in programs to learn what role they can--and in most states, must by law--play in the process of identifying and reporting suspected victims.

Every state requires that those whose jobs bring them in contact with children report any suspected cases of child abuse. In 37 states, state law specifically requires educators to report suspected abuse. But many experts agree that under any circumstances, teachers can play a key role in identifying and reporting young victims of parental neglect and physical and sexual abuse.

“There is an increased public understanding of child abuse and neglect, and the number of professionals who realize they are mandated by state law to report has also increased,” said Martha Kendrick, an nccan analyst. “Teachers are in a primary seat to be able to identify child abuse and also to comply with the mandatory reporting laws.”

The growing national awareness that child abuse is a serious social problem has been accompanied by a range of recent initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels. Increasing numbers of community organizations are sponsoring awareness programs. Revisions to federal and state legislation in recent years have encouraged--or required--the reporting of suspected cases of abuse. And research efforts focusing on the gravity of child abuse are seeking to identify the factors that might lead to abusive family situations.

The National Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-247), which was funded at $16 million last year, authorizes the federal government to provide money to states that meet reporting guidelines and other qualifications, sets reporting standards, provides help to local child-abuse agencies, and has established a central registry that lists substantiated cases of child abuse, according to nccan officials.

Teachers Wary of Reporting

But statistics show that educators made only 10 percent of the 1.1 million reports of child abuse in 1982. To remedy that, national, state, and local organizations involved in child advocacy are offering training programs to help guide educators who, for various reasons, choose not to report suspected child-abuse cases.

Experts agree that there are varied reasons for teachers’ reluctance to inform authorities if they suspect one of their pupils is being abused. Some hesitate because they have seen the frustration experienced by their colleagues who have reported their suspicions, according to Ms. Kendrick.

Some teachers who have notified principals or superintendents of possible problems have found that the information is not given to the ap-propriate social-service agency. Those teachers who make their report directly to a child-protection service may find that the agency already has too many cases--some of which are more serious--to handle. They may also find that there is little or no follow-up action by the agency; and that, according to Ms. Kendrick, serves as a “disincentive to future reporting.”

But teachers should not allow the possibility that there will be no immediate action “to interfere with the responsibility of reporting,” advises Brian G. Fraser, former executive director of ncpca and the author of The Educator and Child Abuse, a booklet published by the organization.

Reporting child abuse, Mr. Fraser continues, does not “belong to any one profession.” Instead, he contends, it often takes a joint effort to identify and report cases. And “in many instances, it is the educator who sets the process in motion.”

“Children who are being abused are in trouble,” said Anne H. Cohn, executive director of the ncpca “Reporting a case of child abuse is the only way to get help for a child.”

Fear of Legal Action

Teachers may also be reluctant to report cases of suspected abuse because they do not want to intrude upon the private lives of the parents of their students, according to Julia Douglas, coordinator of a child-abuse prevention campaign in Philadelphia.

Helping teachers overcome that and other fears is one of the goals of the city’s campaign. Working with the School District of Philadelphia, Ms. Douglas’s project presented programs to 150 schools and community groups last year, including inservice training for the district’s teachers.

One of the campaign’s goals, she said, is to sensitize faculty members to signals of abuse and to the reporting process, and to help teachers get over their fears of reporting. “You can never overreport, but you can underreport,” she said.

Legal considerations are also a major obstacle to reporting. Although most states guarantee immunity from civil and criminal liability if concerned parties make their reports “in good faith,” teachers sometimes fear that parents of alleged victims will sue.

Eric Mondschein, director of the New York State Bar Association’s Law, Youth, and Citizenship Program, advises educators to overcome that fear for the good of children. In an address on the legal factors involved in reporting presented at the 29th annual convention of the National Organization on Legal Problems in Education last month, Mr. Mondschein warned that “unless teachers and administrators report child abuse, there will be no way to find out about it.”

In 32 states, educators who fail to report cases of suspected child abuse are subject to criminal prosecution. “That’s the double sword,” Mr. Mondschein said. And although “most people are very reluctant to file [charges] against a teacher for failing to report,” he added, prosecutions are on the rise because of the nationwide move to confront the issue of child abuse.

In one such case, subsequently dropped, Irene Johnson, a Bremerton, Wash., elementary-school teacher, was charged last year by the county for failing to report the suspected sexual abuse of one of her students. Gary Sexton, the lawyer who represented Ms. Johnson, said the case represented the first time a teacher in Washington State had been charged with failure to report. The charges were dismissed the day before the trial, Mr. Sexton said.

Ms. Johnson became involved in the situation when she was approached by two parents whose children had told them a classmate said she was being sexually abused by her father. Following their discussion with a second teacher, the parents decided to tell the student’s mother, who confronted the student’s father about the alleged incident.

The father, who admitted he had abused his child, then contacted the sheriff’s office, and the county brought charges against Ms. Johnson for failure to report the case.

Mr. Sexton contended that Ms. Johnson thought the case had been reported by the victim’s mother and was surprised by the degree of ambiguity in the reporting statute. The school district, which maintained that Ms. Johnson had acted “properly” and should not have been charged in the case, provided the teacher with legal support, the cost of which was later repaid by the district’s insurance company.

Information Efforts Spread

Such cases are rare and may continue to be relatively so, some child-abuse experts say. They note that the increase in community information programs, such as Philadelphia’s, are having a far more dramatic impact on the increase in both reporting and societal understanding of child abuse.

In Idaho, where the number of child-abuse reports increased from 180 in 1982 to 498 in 1983, a statewide program to raise awareness through training sessions, films, and counseling is given partial credit for the increased reporting. Teachers and other concerned parties are more likely to report suspected cases if they are aware of the general problem, according to Ed Van Dusen, coordinator of child-protection programs for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in Boise. And inservice programs in some of the state’s schools are geared toward helping teachers bet-ter understand their potential role.

The statewide program, which operates through a central network, is funded by a $57,000 grant from the National Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, Mr. Van Dusen said.

In New York City, where a recently released report by the Mayor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect indicated that two or three children under the age of 6 die each week of child abuse or chronic neglect, Mayor Edward I. Koch announced last month that the city will sponsor training programs to foster closer cooperation between city agencies and to raise parents’ awareness about the dangers of child abuse. The New York City Board of Education currently conducts workshops on child abuse for guidance counselors and other educators.

And in Lisbon, Me., organizers of a three-year model program in the schools have conducted awareness seminars for elementary-school teachers and are developing a “prevention curriculum” for K-12 students. They are also publishing a directory of community resources for families. (See related story on child-abuse-awareness programs in schools on page 17.)

The National Education Association is developing a series of print, audiovisual, and audiotape components on child abuse to be used by school districts in six inservice-training workshops.

Created by Cynthia Crosson Tower, an assistant professor and coordinator of the human-services program at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, the materials will be available in August, according to Gordon H. Felton, general manager of the nea Professional Library.

The book that will serve as the core of the program, Child Abuse and Neglect: A Teacher’s Handbook for Detection, Reporting, and Classroom Management, will be published Feb. 15; a package of 25 leaflets for parents will be available Jan. 31, Mr. Felton said.

The National Congress of Parents and Teachers is also involved in child-abuse prevention. In the December 1983-January 1984 issue of pta Today, the organization’s journal, parents and teachers are urged to keep their eyes open for abusers who “spend months or years gaining [a] child’s confidence in or-der to become so close that the child is made a victim.”

Locally, some pta chapters present seminars on abuse and neglect. In Fort Wayne, Ind., for example, the pta’s sexual child-abuse committee has presented programs on abuse and neglect to community members.

Steps in Reporting Process

Inservice programs on child abuse and neglect characteristically provide information on identification, investigation, and intervention.

The first step in the reporting process is identification, experts say. A teacher who notices bruises on a student’s arms and legs, a principal who receives a complaint from a teacher that a student is despondent, or an athletic coach who notices that a child is reluctant to change in the locker room must decide whether a particular child is indeed the victim of child abuse. (See list of signs of child abuse below.)

Following identification, teachers who suspect a student has been abused are required, in most states, to contact the appropriate public social-service or law-enforcement agency within 24 hours. (See chart on page 17.) Under most state laws, the report can be made by telephone; in other cases, a written report must be filed.

Subsequent investigation of the suspected abuse, officials point out, is the responsibility of the state agency that has received the report. Teachers are not obligated to become involved in the investigation process, according to Mr. Fraser, author of the ncpca publication on child abuse.

In some cases, Mr. Fraser points out, teachers are called as witnesses in a court case. However, he stresses, unless a teacher has witnessed actual abuse of the child, there is little likelihood that he or she will be called to testify.

But whether or not their involvement goes beyond making authorities aware of children in difficulty, teachers are said by those concerned about child abuse to be key figures in dealing with the growing national phenomenon. "[Teachers] are in the position to have the best opportunity to see any kind of change [in children],” said Mr. Mondschein of the New York State Bar Association. “They deal with them every day.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 1984 edition of Education Week as Schools Joining National Fight Against Child Abuse