- Define child abuse and neglect.
- Identify factors that may leave a child or youth especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
- Describe your legal and ethical obligation to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect wherever it may occur. This includes suspicions of familial and institutional abuse and neglect.
- Identify protective factors that prevent child abuse and neglect.
We have all seen news reports of child abuse and neglect happening in homes or child care settings. We may know people who have had to report abuse or neglect in the past, or even have personal experience with the reporting process. For most of us, it’s hard to imagine anyone harming a child, especially in an environment that is supposed to be safe. As disturbing as it can be, child abuse and neglect is very real. More than 600,000 children per year are victims of abuse or neglect in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017). Most of us will never understand why an individual abuses or neglects a child. The purpose of this lesson is to:
- Help you understand what child abuse and neglect is.
- Help you understand your obligations in reporting and preventing abuse and neglect. You are a mandated reporter. This means you are legally required to report suspicions of abuse or neglect to appropriate authorities (e.g., Child Protective Services (CPS)).
- If you are unsure whether something is abuse or neglect, rather than an infraction of a policy, you may want to discuss it with your supervisor. You never have to seek permission to report, nor can anyone tell you not to report. If you think a case of abuse or neglect has occurred, you are required to report it properly.
As a support staff member, you serve as a gatekeeper to protecting the children and youth in your workplace. Your role at your job includes helping to identify children and youth who may be experiencing abuse or neglect. Signs of abuse or neglect may be observed anywhere in the program by any program staff. Here are some examples of situations where you might see signs of abuse or neglect.
- Front desk and administrative staff frequently witness the interactions of families with their children.
- Kitchen staff might observe changes in a child or youth’s diet, or the amount of food children and youth have access to.
- Kitchen staff and custodians observe and monitor children and youths’ reactions to spills and accidents.
- Bus drivers witness the interactions between children and caregivers during pick up and drop off times.
- Program nurses and front desk staff observe and monitor the frequency of a child’s visit to the nurse.
- Custodial, maintenance, and kitchen staff observe the interactions between children and direct care staff in the classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms, and playgrounds.
Although you may not engage in direct child care, by working in a child development program, you are an important team member and have the responsibility to identify child abuse and report it. Research shows that it only takes one supportive adult in a child’s life to make a positive impact (Brown, 2014). As a support staff member, you may have an opportunity to be that one supportive adult that impacts a child’s health, safety and well-being.
What is Child Abuse and Neglect?
Take a minute to reflect on that definition. What are your impressions of the federal definition? What does it mean? Let’s explore each part in more detail:
Any recent act or failure to act: This reminds us that abuse and neglect are two separate things. A child can be harmed by abusive actions like hitting, kicking, and verbal abuse, but a child can also be harmed when an adult fails to provide for the child’s well-being. Examples of neglect include not supervising a toddler and not feeding or bathing a child.
on the part of a parent or caretaker: Remember abuse and neglect can happen anywhere and by anyone. Abuse does not just happen at the hands of a parent or family member. Abuse and neglect can be performed by anyone who is responsible for the care of a child. This might be a teacher, coach, faith leader, or any other individual in a caregiving or supervisory role.
which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation: These words can be difficult to read, especially when they involve children. While your status as a mandatory reporter may seem intimidating, quick action can minimize an adult’s ability to take advantage of and harm children.
or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm: We don’t have to wait for tragedies to strike. If a child is in serious risk of harm, it can be considered abuse or neglect.
This definition is the minimum federal standard. States and government departments can develop their own more specific definitions of child abuse and neglect.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child abuse and neglect generally falls into one of these four categories:
Where Does Child Abuse and Neglect Occur?
Child abuse and neglect can happen anywhere. You should be familiar with two distinct types of abuse and neglect, familial and institutional.
Familial abuse or neglect occurs when a child is in the care of a parent or family member. This could be in the child’s home, while in the car with family, at the store, in the parking lot before school starts, or other places in the community. The act of abuse or neglect is performed by a parent, guardian, or other person designated to provide care for the child, including siblings and babysitters.
Institutional abuse or neglect occurs outside the home in community or private settings, such as schools, religious organizations, community groups, or during extracurricular activities, while the child is in the care of a non-family member. This type of abuse or neglect is also known as “out-of-home” or “extra-familial” abuse or neglect. This type of abuse typically involves a child and an adult in a supervisory role, like a teacher, caregiver, or volunteer. This type of abuse typically involves a child and an adult in a supervisory role, like a teacher, caregiver, or volunteer.
You will learn more about institutional abuse in the last lesson of this course and in the Child Abuse Prevention Course for Support Staff. However, there are a few things you should know as you begin this course. There are certain types of guidance and discipline that have the potential to inflict harm and model aggression. When caregivers use aggressive techniques with children, children and their families learn that aggressive responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message we want to send children and families. First-time or young parents may still be learning proper and effective discipline techniques and look to people who work with children for examples. The following practices have no place in child development and youth programs and may be considered child abuse or neglect:
- Corporal punishment: You may not, under any circumstances, strike, hit, whip, spank, pinch, yank, push, drop, or use any other form of physical punishment on a child of any age.
- Withholding physical needs: You may not, under any circumstances, withhold food, sleep, physical activity or other needs like toileting from a child as punishment.
- Yelling, shaming, belittling, or threatening a child: You may not, under any circumstances, intentionally make a child fear for his or her physical or psychological safety. You may not call children hurtful names, threaten children, or make children feel shame.
- Isolating a child: You may not punish a child by leaving him or her alone (i.e., leaving a child on the playground alone because he did not line up with the group) or by putting the child in “time out” in an enclosed space like a closet, restroom, or cardboard box.
- Binding or restricting a child’s movements: You may not punish a child by preventing him or her from being able to move or speak (i.e., covering a child’s mouth or hands with tape).
A staff member accused of child abuse or neglect can expect to be removed from direct contact with children while an investigation is taking place. For more specific information, talk to your program manager.
Who Is At-Risk?
Child abuse and neglect can happen to anyone. There is no “typical” abuser or victim. There are some situations that are associated with higher levels of risk for abuse or neglect though. Understanding who is more at risk for abuse and neglect can help us provide extra support to children and families who are experiencing stress. We can think of risk occurring at three levels: individual, family, and community.
Three categories of individual children are more at risk of experiencing child abuse and neglect: young children, children with dis/abilities, and children with challenging behavior. This includes children who have a difficult time communicating, controlling their emotions, following directions, or getting along with others. The adults around them might get frustrated easily or not know how to help the child. We must be careful to remember this does not mean that the child causes the abuse and neglect. The child is never to blame. It also does not mean that only children in these categories are abused or neglected. Rather, we must remember to provide extra support to families whose children meet these characteristics.
Some families are more at risk for committing abuse or neglect. Adults with little knowledge of child development or a history of maltreatment as a child are at increased risk for abusing or neglecting a child. It is important to remember, though, that not all adults who were abused as children go on to abuse their own children. Adults with substance abuse, mental health issues, or a harsh approach to discipline may also pose a risk.
Abuse is more likely to occur in families that are socially isolated. A family might be socially isolated for many reasons: a recent move or deployment might separate them from extended family and friends, long or unpredictable work schedules might prevent them from having social opportunities, or they might not know how to reach out to others. Child abuse and neglect is also more likely to occur in families that have experienced other forms of domestic violence, like violence against a spouse or partner. Families experiencing stress such as unemployment, birth of a new child, marital conflict, or financial issues are also more at risk for abuse or neglect.
Community risk factors include community violence, high levels of poverty, high levels of mobility and housing instability, high unemployment rates, and poor social connections. Community risk factors can add increased stress on families. Abuse and neglect are more likely to occur when stress is high or access to necessary resources is low.
Watch this video to learn more about the vulnerabilities and long-term effects of abuse and neglect.
What are Protective Factors?
Take a moment to reflect on the risk factors you just read about. If you could think of ways to counteract or cancel out those risk factors, what would they be? What types of individual, family, or community characteristics minimize the risk for child abuse and neglect? Researchers and policymakers have spent a lot of time thinking about these questions. As a result, the Center for the Study of Social Policy has developed the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework to prevent child abuse and neglect. This framework is important to understand because it can help you see the high-quality, family-centered work that happens every day in your program. No matter what your role is, there are things you can do to support children, families, and coworkers that promote protective factors. The Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework gives us tools and ideas to support families.
The Protective Factors Framework is available in the Apply section for you to download and read. The document identifies five protective factors that help prevent child abuse and neglect in families. When these five factors are strong, families are better equipped with the skills and supports they need to protect their child from abuse and neglect. The five protective factors are as follows:
What is My Role in Strengthening Families?
Your main role is to learn all you can about families and to build strong relationships with them. You might be the first person a family member sees when they enter the program or the person they talk to about a problem or concern. They may come to you seeking advice. After all, you may see their child five days a week. You might also work with your Program Manager or T&CS to provide resources to families (e.g., tips about dealing with challenging behavior, community resource information). Thinking about the Protective Factors Framework can help you understand simple ways you can support the families you see every day.
You will learn much more about this topic in the Child Abuse: Prevention for Support Staff course. For now, take time to learn about the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework and reflect on how it can guide your work. Make a commitment to build positive relationships with all the families you work with. You can also continue to:
- Help build awareness about child abuse and neglect in your program and community.
- Participate in required trainings like this one
- Learn about resources in your community that you can share with families.
- Visit http://www.cssp.org/reform/strengthening-families/the-basics/protective-factors to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework approach.
Completing this Course
To view a list of accompanying Learn, Explore, and Apply activities, review the Child Abuse Identification and Reporting for Support Staff Course Guide. Please note that the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines resources for additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.
In this lesson, you will learn about “Kate’s Story.” This is a fictionalized account of actual events that occurred on a U.S. military installation. The names, exact dates, locations, and service-specific terminology have been changed. To create the activities in this and subsequent lessons, we started with the facts of a real criminal investigation and lawsuit. What you will read here goes beyond the facts recorded in the criminal case by imagining details of an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Although much of what you will read here is fiction, the sequence of events and the tragic consequences are very real.
Download the Case Study Reflection activity. Read Kate’s Story. Then, answer the reflection questions. When you are finished, share your answers with your trainer, supervisor, or coach. We also encourage you to read the suggested responses from experts. These will provide additional information and extend your learning.
Before identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect, you must fully understand what it is. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has created a fact sheet with a definition and types of child abuse and neglect. Download and print the Abuse Fact Sheet as a resource for your professional library.
You can also download and print a two-page description of the Protective Factors Framework approach to learn more about that important model for your work.
Browne, C. H. (2014). The Strengthening Families Approach and Protective Factors Framework: Branching Out and Reaching Deeper. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Social Policy. Retrieved from https://cssp.org/resource/the-strengthening-families-approach-and-protective-factors-framework-branching-out-and-reaching-deeper/
Center for the Study of Social Policy (n.d.). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Violence Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect Factsheet. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/preventingcan.pdf
Military Family Advocacy Programs. Retrieved from
Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012). Child Maltreatment 2011.
Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (2006). The Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/91-the-prevalence-of-child-abuse-and-neglect