- Define child abuse and neglect.
- Explain why young preschool children are 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.
A note regarding the Child Abuse Reporting and Prevention Courses: There are separate courses for staff members who work with Infants and Toddlers, Preschoolers, and School-Age children. There are important variations in examples and age-related content, but many critical concepts are similar across these age groups. Staff members who work with multiple age groups or who move to a different age group will not typically be required to complete multiple courses. Please discuss your individual professional development needs with your T&Cs or manager.
For most of us, it’s hard to imagine anyone harming a child. 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, 2012). Most of us will never understand why an individual commits abuse or neglect. The purpose of this lesson is to help you understand what child abuse and neglect is. It is also to 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, Military Family Advocacy Programs, or your Reporting Point of Contact in Army Programs). If you are unsure whether something is abuse or neglect, or rather an infraction of a policy, you may want to discuss this with your supervisor. You never have to seek permission to report. If YOU think a case of abuse or neglect has occurred, you are required to report it properly. It is important to remember that child abuse and neglect should be reported even if it is only a suspicion. It is not your duty to determine if what a child is experiencing is abuse or neglect.
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 distinct concepts. A child can be harmed by blatant actions like hitting or kicking, but a child can also be harmed when an adult fails to provide for the child’s well-being. For example, an adult may fail to supervise a child, fail to provide necessary medical treatment, or fail to feed or bathe 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 committed 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
- 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. In your workplace, you will observe and follow the Department of Defense definitions of child abuse and neglect.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the military Family Advocacy Program, child abuse and neglect generally falls into one of these 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 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, etc. home. The act of abuse or neglect is committed by a parent, guardian, or family member.
Institutional abuse or neglect occurs outside the home in community or private settings. This type of abuse or neglect is also known as “out-of-home” or “extra-familial” abuse or neglect. Throughout the rest of this course, institutional abuse will refer to abuse or neglect which may occur in Department of Defense-sponsored facilities, programs, or activities. This course will focus on abuse or neglect which may occur in child development centers, family child care homes, sponsored field trips, and school-age care programs. Remember, though, that institutional abuse can also occur in installation homework or computer centers, mentoring or tutoring programs, sports programs, chapel programs, scouts, Morale Welfare and Recreation programs, teen centers and youth programs. 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. 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 we use aggressive techniques with children, they and their families learn that aggressive responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message we want to send children and families. The following practices have no place in child development programs and may be considered child abuse or neglect:
If a staff member is accused of child abuse or neglect, they can expect to be removed from direct contact with children while an investigation is underway. For more specific information, talk to your manager or T&CS.
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 several levels: individual, family, and community.
There are three categories of children who are more at-risk for experiencing child abuse and neglect: young children, children with disabilities, and children with challenging behavior. This means children who have a difficult time communicating, controlling their emotions, following directions, or getting along with others might be at-risk. 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.
Watch this video to learn why preschool children are vulnerable to child abuse and neglect. You will also learn about the long-term effects of abuse and neglect.
There are also some characteristics of families who 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 committing child abuse or neglect. 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 be at 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 (like unemployment, birth of a new child, marital conflict, or deployment), poor parent-child relationships, and negative interactions also are most at-risk.
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 is more likely to occur when stress is high or access to necessary resources is low.
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 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. It is important to understand this framework because it can help you see that the high-quality, family-centered work that you do everyday in your program makes a difference in the lives of children and families. Our job is not only to care for each child but also to provide care and support for the whole family. The Strengthening Families Protective Factors framework gives us tools and ideas to support families.
There is a resource in the Apply section for you to download and read to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework. Here is a brief overview of the 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.
Strengthening Families Protective Factors (Figure 1)
Families are able to manage stress and bounce back from challenges.
Knowledge of Child Development and Parenting
Adults know what to expect as children grow and are able to meet their child's needs at each stage of development.
Families know there are people who care about them and who they can call on for help.
Concrete Supports in Times of Need
Families can get the help they need when crises strike: food and shelter, medical and mental health services, social, legal, and educational resources.
Social and Emotional Competence of Children
Social and emotional development promotes healthy relationships with others. Children with strong relationships, who can regulate their own behavior, express their emotions, and relate to others are at lower risk of maltreatment.
A family may have these protective factors in place, however, it is not guaranteed that abuse or neglect will be prevented. Do not let these factors influence reporting, let them serve as a guide to better support families.
Watch this video to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework.
What is My Role in Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect?
As a child development program staff member, you have a legal and ethical professional responsibility to protect children from harm. That is your most important responsibility and one that is highlighted in the National Association for the Education of Young Children code of professional ethics. Given this important ethical responsibility, it is also important to recognize that you have a legal obligation to act when you suspect a child is in harm’s way. As a child development staff member, you are a mandated reporter for suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This means you are legally required to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. You will learn about reporting procedures in subsequent lessons. For now, it is important to recognize that you have an obligation to report your suspicions of child abuse and neglect.
On military installations, leaders have worked hard to create a climate that promotes reporting. You are a mandated reporter, and so are all installation law enforcement personnel, physicians, nurses, social workers, school personnel, Family Advocacy Program and Children, Youth and School personnel, psychologists, and other medical personnel. In some services and on some installations, all service members are mandated reporters.
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 talks to about a problem or concern they are having. You might also work with your manager or T&CS to provide resources to families (i.e., tips about dealing with tantrums, community information). Thinking about the Protective Factors framework can help you understand simple ways you can support the families you see everyday. You will learn much more about this topic in the Child Abuse Prevention course and in the Family Engagement 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 of 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 and others offered by your Family Advocacy Program. You will learn more about Family Advocacy Programs in the next lessons. The Family Advocacy Program works to prevent child abuse and neglect by offering programs to build and support families in building the protective factors all families need. If abuse does occur, the FAP has trained staff to assess reported incidents and respond accordingly to keep victims safe and to work with families to create safe, stable, and nurturing relationships for children.
- Learn about resources in your community or on your installation that you can share with families.
- Visit https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/ to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework approach.
Completing this Course
For more information on what to expect in this course, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Preschool Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting Course Guide and the Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting Competency Reflection.
Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find 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.
Throughout this course, 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 or neutralized. 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 individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Although much of what you will read here is fiction, the sequence of events is very real.
Read Kate’s Story. Then answer the reflection questions in the Reflecting on Abuse and Neglect activity. When you are finished, share your answers with your trainer, coach, or administrator. 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. Print the What is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms fact sheet as a resource for your professional library.
You can also download a two-page description of the Protective Factors Framework approach to learn more about that important model for your work.
Center for the Study of Social Policy (2018). Protective Factors Framework. https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Violence Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2021). Child Witnesses to Domestic Violence. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/witnessdv.pdf
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2020). Definitions of Human Trafficking. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/definitions_trafficking.pdf
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019). What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/whatiscan.pdf
Military Family Advocacy Programs. (2020).
Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012). Child Maltreatment 2011.