- Define child abuse and neglect.
- Describe your legal and ethical obligation to report suspicions of 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 Program Manager.
For most of us, it's hard to imagine anyone harming a child. It can be even more difficult to imagine anyone intentionally harming a baby or toddler. 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 abuses or neglects a child. 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 all mandated reporters. This means you are legally required to report suspicions of abuse or neglect to appropriate authorities (e.g., Child Protective Services).(e.g., Child Protective Services, Military Family Advocacy Programs, and law enforcement).(e.g., Child Protective Services, Military Family Advocacy Programs, law enforcement, and your Reporting Point of Contact (RPOC) 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 investigate or 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, not supervising a toddler or 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 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 ServicesMIL 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 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.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.
You will learn more about institutional abuse in the last lesson of this course and in the Child Abuse and Neglect 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 school-age 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).
If a school-age program 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 manageror 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.
There are also some characteristics of families who are more at-risk for 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 be at risk.
Watch this video to learn about the long-term effects of abuse and neglect for school-age children.
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 are 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 work that you do every day 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.
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 school-age staff member, you have a legal and ethical professional obligation to protect children from harm. 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 to appropriate authorities including Child Protective Services, Military Family Advocacy Programs, and law enforcement. 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 administrator or T&CS to provide resources to families (i.e., tips for helping with homework, community 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 course and in the Families 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, the Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the School-Age Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting Course Guide.
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 the next five lessons, you will learn about “Braden and Bethany’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 and the tragic consequences are very real.
Read Braden and Bethany’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. Download the What is Child Abuse and Neglect? 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). Strengthening Families: A 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/
Chamberlain, H., Stander, V., & Merrill, L. L. (2001). Research on child abuse in the U.S. armed forces. Naval Health Research Center.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect Factsheet. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/preventingcan.pdf
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Child witnesses to domestic violence. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/witnessdv.pdf
Friends National Resource Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention http://friendsnrc.org/
Gibbs, D. A., Martin, S.L., Clinton-Sherrod, M., Hardison, Walters J. L., & Johnson, R. E. (2011). Child maltreatment within military families. DOI: 10.3768/rtipress.2011.rb.0002.1105
Harper Browne, C. (2014). The Strengthening Families Approach and Protective Factors Framework: Branching out and reaching deeper. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Social Policy. https://cssp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Branching-Out-and-Reaching-Deeper.pdf
Military One Source. (n.d.). Military Family Advocacy Programs. http://www.militaryonesource.mil/phases-military-leadership?content_id=266712
Rentz, E. D., Martin, S. L., Gibbs, D. A., Clinton-Sherrod, M., Hardison, J., , & Marshall, S. W. (2006). Family violence in the military: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 7(2), 93-108. doi:10.1177/1524838005285916
Stith, S. M., Liu, T., Davies, L. C., Boykin, E. L., Alder, M. C., Harris, J. M., Dees, J. (2009). Risk factors in child maltreatment: A meta-analytic review of the literature. DOI:10.1016/j.avb.2006.03.006
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021). Child maltreatment 2019. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/data-research/child-maltreatment
Wadsworth, S. M. & Riggs, D. (Eds.) (2011). In Risk and Resilience in US Military Families. (pp. 111- 130). New York: Springer Science Business Media