- Define the different types of child abuse and neglect.
- Recognize possible signs of child abuse and neglect.
- Plan ways to strengthen families to prevent abuse and neglect at home and within the program.
- Summarize procedures to follow when abuse or neglect is suspected.
Child abuse and neglect is a serious issue for early care and education. A single lesson cannot teach you everything you need to know. You will learn more in the Child Abuse: Prevention and Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting courses. This lesson will give you a basic introduction to the topic.
As a teacher or caregiver, you are a “mandated reporter.” This means that you are legally bound to report your suspicions of child abuse or neglect. It is your job to know the signs and make the call that could save a child’s life. This lesson will give you information to help you do your job.
What is Child Abuse and Neglect?
At its most basic form, child abuse and neglect is defined under federal law as:
- Any recent act or failure to act which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation of a child
- An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm to a child
Watch this video to learn about the different types of child abuse and neglect.
What are the Signs of Abuse or Neglect?
Every child is different. Any one behavior may not necessarily be a symptom of abuse or neglect. If you see a pattern of behavior or multiple signs, however, you may have a reason to be concerned.
You will need to use observation skills and your knowledge of each child. As the video described, abuse can happen at home or in your program. You must be prepared to look for signs of abuse in both settings.
“Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect: Signs and Symptoms” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) offers a list of child and parent behaviors that may be signs of abuse. This tool is available in the Apply section.
Throughout this lesson an experienced teacher will share her experiences reporting child abuse and neglect. Remember, these three experiences occurred at different times and different programs over a career. Do not worry: abuse and neglect is rarely something you encounter every day or even every year.
In the first video, the teacher describes her experience reporting child neglect. Pay special attention to how she became suspicious, what signs she noticed, and the positive outcomes.
How Can I Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect at Home?
There is a lot you can do to prevent child abuse and neglect. You can think of your role as one to strengthen families.
You can help parents learn about the resources around them. You can put information about positive parenting techniques in your class newsletter. You can spread the word about parent education nights hosted by your program. You can build connections between families in your classroom. These supports could benefit all of the families in your community, regardless of risk for child abuse or neglect.
There may be some families in your program that are going through difficult situations like death of a family member, deployment, illness, or unemployment. These families might be more at-risk for child abuse or neglect. Talk with these families and try to learn about their situations. Talk to your administrator about resources your program or community has for helping families deal with traumatic life events.
You may work with families who have already experienced abuse or neglect. Be sensitive to the needs of these families. Learn about the resources your program or community offers. There might be mental health support, mentoring, or specialized support groups that you could share with these families.
How Can I Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect in My Program?
It is likely that your program already has features in place to prevent child abuse. Many newer facilities are built with vision panels so individuals can see into the classroom from the hallway and outside. Restrooms are built with low barriers rather than doors. Surveillance cameras, visitor sign-in procedures, and daily health checks are all part of a comprehensive system for preventing child abuse.
A comprehensive child guidance policy and a touch policy also help keep you safe. More information about these policies will be provided in the Guidance course. For now, remember: Never use harsh discipline practices. The following practices should not be used:
- Hitting, spanking, or other physical acts
- Isolation from adult sight
- Confinement, binding, humiliation or verbal abuse
- Deprivation of food, outdoor play, or other program components
There is also a lot you can do in your classroom. Good room arrangement and design is your first step. Make sure there are no “blind spots” in the room. You need to be able to see all children at all times. Be aware that inadequate supervision of children under your care may constitute child neglect and put children in danger.
Maintain accountability for all children at all times. It is important to ensure children are signed in and out as they come and go from your room. Make sure children only leave with people who are authorized to pick them up. If you do not recognize the person who is picking up children in your care, you need to question their authority to pick the child up.
Be aware of the behaviors you heard described in the video. If you notice an adult acting strangely, act on your suspicions. Use the checklist provided in the Apply section to make sure you are doing all you can to keep children safe.
What Do I Do If I Suspect a Child is Abused or Neglected?
Most importantly, you have a responsibility to report a suspected case of abuse or neglect. It is not your job to identify the abuser. All you need to do is suspect abuse and allow investigators to do their jobs. Reporting requirements vary from state to state and program to program.
If you suspect abuse or neglect, you can call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). This line is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and can help you find emergency resources.
Follow all of the procedures required at your place of employment.
What advice does Pam give about preparing for and making the call to report abuse or neglect?
What To Expect After The Call:
Reporting suspected child abuse or neglect can be a stressful event for teachers. It is important to mentally prepare yourself for what happens after the call.
In most states, your report will be evaluated by Child Protective Services. If there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation, a caseworker will initiate the investigation. Children, families, and caregivers may be contacted and interviewed. Child Protective Services will determine whether the claim is substantiated and whether the child is safe in the home. If the report of abuse involves alleged criminal acts, law enforcement will be contacted and the investigation will be conducted jointly.
It is important to prepare yourself emotionally for what follows a report. First, understand that you may never learn the final outcome of your report. You may only receive confirmation that the report is being investigated. Second, some families remove their child from the program after a report of child abuse or neglect. Both of these events are normal and can be expected. Some teachers fear that making a report may get the child in trouble and may lead to more abuse. It is also often the case that you have a relationship with these families. Perhaps they are your friends or neighbors. It can be difficult to make a report when you are afraid of damaging the relationship or opening yourself up to retaliation. Remember you have done the right thing. Do not let fear of what might happen next stop you from doing what you can to protect the child.
Listen as this teacher shares another experience.
It can be especially difficult to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect when the alleged perpetrator is one of your coworkers. You might doubt yourself or question what you saw. You might worry about how that individual or other staff members will treat you. You might be afraid of negative publicity or damaging the reputation of your program. You might even be discouraged from reporting by coworkers or leaders. Remember, it is your job to keep children safe and to speak for children. Trust your instincts. If you suspect abuse or neglect, make a report.
Listen as another child development professional shares an experience with inappropriate behavior in a program.
Take care of yourself. Protecting a child who is experiencing trauma can be an exhausting and emotionally draining experience. You are likely very invested in this child’s health and safety. You have spent hours worrying about this child’s well-being and wondering what to do. You can seek out the help of a mental-health specialist in your program. Seek out time with friends and family. You should also be sure to keep healthful habits like eating well, exercising, and sleeping.
No one ever wants to suspect child abuse or neglect. There are times, though, when you must follow your instincts. If you suspect abuse or neglect, your call can save a life. Read the scenarios and answer the questions in the activity: Responding to Child Abuse In and Out of the Program. Talk to your administrator, trainer, or coach about your responses. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.
It is important to think about how you protect yourself from accusations of abuse and neglect. Read the Preventing Child Abuse in Your Classroom or Center checklist and reflect on the steps you take. Talk with a trainer, coach, or administrator about how you can continue to protect children from abuse and neglect.
American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. (2019). Caring for our children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs. (4th ed.). American Academy of Pediatrics. https://nrckids.org/CFOC
Craig, S. E. (2008). Reaching and teaching children who hurt. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing, Co.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.). Responding to child abuse & neglect. Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/responding/
MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Child abuse homepage. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/childabuse.html