What Should You Do When You Suspect Child Abuse?

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Instructor experts on Kids in Crisis answer a concerned teacher's questions about helping a troubled child.

About Jimmy

Dear Instructor:
One of my fourth graders, who has often come to school with bruises on his arms and legs, finally confided in me that he's had "serious arguments" with his father. The parents are separated, and Jimmy lives with his mother now, but he still sees his father occasionally. The other day I noticed that Jimmy had fresh bruises on his face. He was very restless and ultimately left the building without permission. This necessitated my calling in his mother for an emergency conference, during which I had to confess that Jimmy's academic progress also had me worried. His mother said that if she hears one more time that her son is doing badly in school, she'll send him to live with his father. I was horrified. Jimmy hasn't come back to school, and now I'm even more worried. I'm not sure if he ever told anyone else about his father's abusive behavior. Is it my duty to tell someone? Obviously, there are things going on that I don't understand but I want to do something to prevent Jimmy's mother from sending him to live with his abusive father.
Mixed-up in Maine

Dr. Brodkin Responds:
A Child Psychologist's View

I'm glad you asked whether you have a duty to report Jimmy's situation. The answer is a simple one: Yes, you do because it's the law. What's more, reporting is probably the only way to protect Jimmy from further abuse.

According to the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, we have a national emergency. Child abuse has reached epidemic proportions, with some three million reports each year, the majority of which turn out to be accurate. And it's estimated that millions more cases go unreported. Teachers can make the difference for many of these children. Here's how.

Inform yourself. Many people don't know that teachers in all 50 states are now legally obligated to report even reasonable suspicions of child abuse to the police or local child protective services. I urge all teachers to learn about their state's child-abuse laws, including recommendations about how to report. All this information is available from each state's department of social services and local law-enforcement agencies.

Report suspicions, too. Jimmy told you about the abuse he has endured, but that doesn't happen often. More commonly, abused children protect their parents by making excuses for them or denying the abuse. Often, kids believe the abuse is their own fault. What should you have done in Jimmy's case, then, if you had only suspected abuse? You'd have reported it that way, as you are obligated to do. There is a list of signs of abuse to watch for later in this article.

What happens next? Although procedures may vary from state to state, it is likely that the child protective services, after verifying your report, will do everything possible to protect Jimmy without separating him from his family. They should also press Jimmy's parents to seek counseling immediately. As the case unfolds, do insist on being kept informed of progress by whomever is in charge of coordinating the case.

Handle Jimmy with care. Most abused children are likely to lose ground academically, socially, and behaviorally. Since they are also fearful of and lack trust in adults and rightfully so, based on their experiences teachers need to be cautious in disciplining them and responding to their work. You are in a unique position to guide Jimmy toward some sort of success. If he can't find it in academics right now, how about encouraging him in a sport, music, or some other skill or special interest? Be patient, and know your efforts will make a difference.

Dr. Coleman Responds:
A School Leader's View

I can certainly empathize with your anxiety over the right thing to do for Jimmy. For educators, suspected child abuse is always wrapped in fear: fear of misidentification, fear of repercussions from parents, fear for the child, and fear of going out on a limb and being left alone to deal with the problem. As a school principal, I used to dread child abuse/neglect cases for all these reasons that's why I made it my business to prepare my teachers well and stand behind them.

Have policies and procedures in place. Whatever happens with Jimmy, be assured there are almost certainly more children like him at your school. You and your colleagues need to know how to respond in a systematic manner to similar cases that will arise in the future. If your school doesn't already have a clearly defined process for handling suspicions of child abuse, volunteer to get a group of staff members together with your principal and start developing one.

Make knowledge of legal requirements a priority. I always made sure that the teachers in my school had written information about our state's reporting requirements, definitions for reporting, and legal consequences of not reporting. If your school doesn't routinely provide this information to teachers, make it part of your policy to do so. Be aware that some districts go even further, requiring principals to certify that they have informed the staff about how to report, and requiring employees to certify that they know the rules and will comply with them.

Focus on prevention as well as intervention. Although the causes of child abuse aren't yet well-understood, many parents who harm their kids have certain "risk factors" in common. The most important of these may be a long-standing cycle of family abuse, in which parents treat their children as they themselves were treated. Short-term factors include marital problems, job loss, or discipline difficulties with the child. Many parents grappling with these problems are desperate to get help but don't know how. Your school can help direct them toward counseling and into support groups such as Parents Anonymous. If your school team finds out and informs parents about community resources such as these, you might prevent some future cases like Jimmy's.

A Child-Abuse Expert on Warning Signs to Watch For

How can you tell if a child is being harmed or neglected at home?
According to Shirley O'Brien, a human development specialist and spokesperson for the Association for Early Childhood International, it is reasonable to suspect abuse if a number of these physical and behavioral signs are present:

  • bruises, lumps, welts;
  • repeated broken bones;
  • burns of all sorts;
  • wariness around adults;
  • frequent absences;
  • accident-proneness;
  • poor concentration;
  • academic failure;
  • increased aggression;
  • hanging around school before and after class; and
  • poor peer relationships.

Resources on Child Abuse

National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, in the Administration for Children,Youth and Families/U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, P.O. Box 1182, Washington, D.C. 20013-1182; (800) FYI-3366. Clearinghouse for child-abuse information.

National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 1600, Chicago, IL 60604; (312) 663-3520. Provides books, pamphlets, and other information on child abuse.

The American Humane Association, 63 Inverness St. E., Englewood, CO 80112-5117; (303) 792-9900. Resources-including many free publications on all types of child abuse and neglect.

"Facts for Teachers," a publication of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016; (202) 966-7300.

  • Subjects:
    Abuse, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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