Childhood Challenges host Dr. Adele Brodkin presents two perspectives on the issue of child abuse: sexual abuse and neglect. These case studies and accompanying articles are adapted from Teacher magazine, April, and July/August 1994, and were written by Dr. Brodkin, clinical associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New Jersey Medical School; and her colleague, Melba Coleman, Ed.D., associate professor of graduate education at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Has This Child Been Sexually Abused?

Cautious Steps to Take When You Suspect Trouble at Home

A teacher writes:

My question is about eight-year-old Samantha, who is in my second-grade class. She's been very excitable lately, and frankly, this little girl seems to be obsessed with sex. It is in her play, her drawings, and on her mind, judging by the startling questions she asks. She daydreams and touches herself during class time, and I'm especially concerned now that she has started to rub up against other children. I've noticed the children squirming to get away from her when she's in that sort of mood. All of this is pretty new.

Samantha did have some trouble concentrating earlier in the year, but I attributed that to the fact that her parents had just separated. Since the family breakup, she's been living in a house with her dad, his 19-year-old son by a previous marriage, and her grandfather. Her mom lives with a boyfriend, and Samantha stays with them on weekends and holidays. I'm sure the changes in her life have been very confusing and stressful, but her behavior in school is still unusual for a second grader. I'm starting to wonder whether she may be a victim of sexual abuse. There's no real evidence, and I don't mean to accuse anyone falsely, but it is worrying me. Do you have any suggestions about how I might deal with this perplexing situation?

Dr. Brodkin responds:

As you say, Samantha's behavior is not typical of most children her age, and that is certainly a valid reason for concern. I'm sure you know that her behavior can be a sign of sexual abuse (see "What You Should Know" below, for additional information), but keep in mind that sexually abused children are certainly not the only ones with these symptoms. You are wise to be cautious about drawing the conclusion that Samantha has been abused. It's just as likely that she's simply overwhelmed by her family problems. Another possibility is that she has witnessed sexual activity.

In any case, as her teacher, you aren't expected to investigate the matter. You might help, though, by setting the stage for others to do just that. You might start by reporting your concern to the principal, who can then ask the school psychologist to observe in your classroom. In the meantime, here are some measures you can take:

  • Minimize classroom disruption: Try ignoring Samantha's inappropriate behavior, unless it violates others' rights. And do all you can to keep Samantha's school day as structured and interesting as possible.
  • Carefully plan a meeting with Samantha's parents: If at all possible, invite each of Samantha's parents in for a separate conference. In a low-key way, try to get a sense of what life is like in each of their homes. Does Samantha have her own room? Does everyone have appropriate privacy? Be very careful in describing Samantha's behavior (if you do so at all at this point), recognizing that there is a danger of fueling a power struggle that might already exist between her parents.
  • Suggest extra help for stress: Explain to Samantha's family that children of recently separated parents often profit from counseling — thereby paving the way for the help Samantha clearly needs.
  • Take it one step at a time: If the situation deteriorates further, or if Samantha's parents refuse to cooperate, it may be necessary for your school to report a suspicion of sexual abuse to the child protective services in your state.

Dr. Coleman responds:

Handling possible child-abuse situations is one of the most difficult challenges faced by school personnel — one that may profoundly affect not only the child and his or her family, but the school, as well — for a long time to come. In one particularly worrisome case at a school where I served as principal, a father was imprisoned for the physical abuse of one of his children. He was so embittered and angry at the attendance counselor who handled the case that he wrote me letters from prison threatening to get even with this counselor.

My advice to you, therefore, is to brace yourself for a bumpy ride and proceed with extreme caution when handling Samantha's problems. Here are some things for you and your principal to consider as you figure out your next moves.

  • Think through your approach to her parents: Be very careful how soon and show much you involve Samantha's parents and step-parents in discussions of her problems. We have all heard of tragic cases in which children have been harmed by enraged parents who were confronted with possible suspicions of child abuse.
  • Weigh "reasonable suspicion": Since all states have mandatory abuse-reporting laws, school personnel are expected to take the lead in reporting cases of suspected child abuse. The language usually includes "reasonable suspicion" as one of the major criteria for reporting child abuse. Judging from Samantha's behavior, it would appear that her obsession with sexual matters is not normal. Whether or not reasonable suspicion exits to the point where reporting is advisable would depend upon many factors, including the answers to the questions that follow.
  • Consider crucial questions: These questions should help in your confidential discussion with your principal about Samantha:
    1. What does the school nurse (or another health professional) say about Samantha's physical heath?
    2. What does the school psychologist (or other mental health professional) say about Samantha's emotional state?
    3. What is expected of the teacher in terms of reporting child abuse?
    4. What is your school's policy regarding child-abuse reporting?

Once you've answered these questions, you, your principal, and other appropriate staff can develop a plan for Samantha.

What You Should Know About Sexual Abuse

  • Most sexual abuse begins before the child is 12; the average age of first-time victims is eight.
  • Sexual abuse is most often committed by family members or family friends; fathers and stepfathers are most frequently named, but brothers and uncles are thought to be even more likely offenders.
  • Some of the young victims show signs of fear and anxiety, have sleep disturbances, are depressed, become aggressive, or have trouble concentrating and learning, while others just stop developing well in all areas.
  • Sexually abused children are often hyperaroused, and may show a premature interest in sex — for example, behaving inappropriately or acting out sexual themes in their play.

For More Information

  • National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, 332 South Michigan Ave., Suite 1600, Chicago, IL 60604
  • Child-abuse hot lines: Most states have these; check your phone book.


How to Help a Neglected Child

What's Your Role When Parents Don't Seem to be Fulfilling Theirs?

A teacher writes:

Although a new school year has recently begun, I just can't get one of my last year's fifth graders out of my mind. His name is Sam, and I'm bothered by the thought that I wasn't able to help him. Sam has learning disabilities, but that was the least of his problems. I think it's fair to say he was a neglected child. He would come into my classroom tired, dirty, and unprepared almost every day. He didn't do any homework, and the notes that I sent home were never acknowledged, nor for that matter were his report cards. Even positive notes and awards brought no response from his parents.

Sam didn't pay his lunch bills or bring in library books, and he lost many textbooks over the course of the year. All of this seemed especially puzzling since his parents are affluent, influential members of the community. I tried to help Sam by getting his things ready to go home each day. I would mark his papers with big stars if they were to be returned. His baby-sitter, who is with him more than anyone, told me that Sam always gave the notes to his parents, although they later denied this. Sam's parents were never home when I called and rarely returned my calls. I finally resorted to sending important notes home via certified mail. Their behavior was especially frustrating since they put up such a good front in the town.

I worry about Sam and his brother and sister. They all cry easily and often, but most of the time they fade into the background like "lost" children. Although I did my best for Sam, I know that my best was not good enough to make a difference in his life. What should I have done?

Dr. Brodkin responds:

In many cases of child neglect, the parents or guardians are overwhelmed, spending all of their energy working to feed, clothe, and house the family, leaving little time for their children's emotional and educational needs. At least such lapses of "good enough" parenting can be explained. It's much more difficult to understand Sam's plight. You only know that his well-being does not seem to be a priority to his parents.

I can well understand your frustration, but please don't berate yourself for not having solved Sam's problem. In fact, you may have done more for Sam that you realize. If, in the future, you find yourself in a similar situation perhaps even with one of Sam's siblings, here are a few things to consider.

  • Keep being there. Teachers certainly can't do it all, but just doing what you have been taking an interest in a child like Sam, guiding him, believing in him, and providing clear structure for him while he's in school can make a difference.
  • Reach out to caring adults. Sam desperately needs a reliable adult in his life. Apparently you established a relationship with the baby-sitter; perhaps with your encouragement, she would get more involved in Sam's health and hygiene. If there are grandparents, aunts, uncles, or even a caring friend or neighbor, the school might call upon them.
  • Look a little deeper. Like many neglected children, Sam and his siblings are already apathetic and sad. Some children in Sam's situation also become very aggressive and destructive feeling unwanted or abandoned can evoke rage. It would help to know how long this situation has been going on. The more recent the neglect, the better the outlook for Sam. Your involvement may already have helped to prevent Sam's situation from worsening.
  • Call in official help if needed. If all efforts to engage the parents fail, and the child's situation seems to be worsening, it's time to call upon your state's child protective services. No matter how influential the parents, you have the right as a teacher to intervene on behalf of any students who lack the supervision and warm guidance that every child deserves and needs.

Dr. Coleman responds:

Sam is extremely lucky, indeed, to have had you as his teacher. You reached out to him and his family in a very caring and supportive manner. You are to be commended for you actions. I would encourage you not to be too hard on yourself. I would also like to offer some suggestions that may help you in dealing with future Sams and Samanthas.

  • Focus on the kids. As an administrator, I often had to advise teachers on how to work with a child to change his or her behavior despite parental actions. My major concern was empowering children to take charge of their lives where and whenever possible. In Sam's case, the following actions may have helped.
  • Help with hygiene. Talk to Sam about what it means to get ready for school and work out a plan for him that would include specific steps: brush teeth, comb hair, put on clean clothes, and so on. In some cases, you may even want to make toothbrushes, washcloths, and other hygiene items available at school. Ask the school nurse to provide a secluded place for the children to clean up. You didn't say whether Sam is the oldest, but if he is, I would have encouraged him to help his younger siblings with their hygiene.
  • Set up a home-school routing system. One way to get parents to respond to papers, report cards, and notes sent home is to formalize the process. In my district, each student has a folder. Inside the front cover is a printed list of school rules and homework suggestions. Inside the back cover is a sheet where parents sign and write any comments. Every Tuesday we send home the folders with any important papers. We launched the program with a bang by including an incentive program in each classroom to reward children for bringing the folders back the next day.
  • Arrange homework support. I implemented a successful program at my school called Homework Helpers in which parents volunteered to come in one hour a week after school to help students with their homework. If Sam's parents are as image-conscious as you let on, this may just get them into the school to save face. If not, at least Sam will be able to get help with his homework from other parents.

As you go forward in your support of kids like Sam, remember:

  • Recalcitrant parents come in all stripes. They range from totally dysfunctional to highly successful. There are countless of parents like Sam's.
  • Although children may be hurt by parental neglect, they still love and depend upon their parents. We must be extremely careful not to diminish parents in children's eyes.
  • It is usually far more productive to focus on the child's behavior than on the parents'. We need to transform children from victims to victors.