- Describe the importance of relationships in preventing child abuse and neglect.
- Define institutional child abuse and neglect.
- Explain the importance of protective factors in preventing child abuse and neglect in programs.
Think back to your childhood. Can you think of a time when you felt completely safe? Hold an image of the place or the experience in your mind. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What sensations do you feel? What emotions does it evoke? Who is there with you? What do they do to make you feel safe?
For some of us, this might be an easy exercise. Some childhoods were full of safe and happy memories from which to choose. For others of us, though, this exercise is challenging. There might be few times when we experienced a feeling of complete safety, and those times might be shaded by memories of other, uncomfortable or scary experiences or events. All of us, regardless of our backgrounds, likely feel a sense of gratitude toward those people and places who helped us feel safe.
There is a growing body of evidence that these moments, these relationships, these safe places where we feel loved and protected can make all the difference in our lives. Consider Sara’s story:
Sara’s story reminds us of several important ideas. First, all parents love their children very much and are doing the best they can. This is important to remember when we begin working with families. Second, the parent-child bond is strong even in the most difficult relationships — children love their parents. Third, history is not destiny: children who were mistreated do not all grow up to abuse their own children. Fourth, unconditional love makes a big difference in a child’s life. It is easy to imagine that Sara probably also had many other people rooting for her and helping her succeed. Love from a parent is critical, but extended family, neighbors, teachers, social workers, and counselors can all contribute the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships.
Clearly, relationships are the first and most important foundation in a child’s life. Sara had a relationship with her parents, but it is also likely that she had strong relationships with other adults around her: teachers, coaches, or neighbors. These relationships helped Sara bounce back from the challenges she encountered. You have an important opportunity to build secure relationships with the school-age children in your program. It is never too late to build strong connections with a child. These relationships help children see you as a trusted adult. Children are reminded that adults care about them and can help in times of need. Relationships also help you understand each child deeply and help you act in each child’s best interests. This includes taking important steps to prevent child abuse and neglect in your program.
As you remember from the course on Child Abuse Identification and Reporting, child abuse and neglect can be institutional as well as familial. This means child abuse and neglect can happen in your program. This lesson will review the concept of institutional abuse and neglect. The remaining lessons in this course will help you learn specific strategies for preventing child abuse and neglect in your program.
You have already completed a course on identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect, and you will continue to have regular professional development on this topic throughout your career. Let’s just take a few moments to review the major definitions of child abuse and neglect.
What is Child Abuse and Neglect?
Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as:
Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker 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.
Source: Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-320), § 3.
The Department of Defense (DoDD 6400.1, 2004) defines child abuse and neglect as follows:
Child abuse and neglect includes physical injury, sexual maltreatment, emotional maltreatment, deprivation of necessities or combinations for a child by an individual responsible for the child's welfare under circumstances indicating that the child's welfare is harmed or threatened. The term encompasses both acts and omissions on the part of a responsible person. A child is a person under 18 years of age for whom a parent, guardian, foster parent, caretaker, employee of a residential facility or any staff person providing out-of-home care is legally responsible. The term child means a natural child, adopted child, stepchild, foster child or ward. The term also includes an individual of any age who is incapable for self-support because of a mental or physical incapacity and for whom treatment in a medical treatment facility is authorized.
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 four categories:
Who Commits Child Abuse and Neglect?
People who commit child abuse and neglect can come from any walk of life. There is no specific list of characteristics that would indicate someone is an abuser but some risk factors are associated with an increased likelihood that someone might commit abuse or neglect. These include:
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Difficulties controlling emotions, words, or behaviors
- Harsh approach to discipline
- Mental health issues
- Little knowledge of child development
- History of maltreatment as a child
When a child is abused or neglected by a parent, guardian, or family member, it is called familial abuse. This type of abuse typically happens in the child’s home.
When a child is abused or neglected by someone else in a supervisory role (like a teacher, coach, or community member), it is called institutional or out-of-home abuse. Your workplace is committed to making sure each and every child is safe while in your program. The remainder of this course will focus on ways to make sure children are never mistreated in your program. You will learn frameworks, strategies, and supports for helping to make this happen.
What is Institutional Abuse and Neglect?
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.
How Can Child Abuse and Neglect Be Prevented in School-Age Programs?
The lessons that follow in this course will describe specific strategies for preventing child abuse and neglect in your program. To begin this course, though, take a few moments to think about yourself and how you can get ready for the important work you will do with children. Think about how you will go about forming a bond with each child. Consider the following relationship-building strategies:
- Spend time with children. School-age children may act like they don’t want adults around, but they need your time and attention. Sit down on the couch and chat. Join in a soccer game or a video game.
- Get excited about what the children in your program are excited about. Are they fascinated with building rockets or learning to play instruments? Share what you know and build connections around these shared interests.
- Open up. School-age children want to know about you. Share about yourself and your hobbies and interests. If you play an instrument, play for the children. Teach them how to play chess. Self-disclosure can be an effective tool when building relationships, but sharing too much about your personal life can blur boundaries between a teaching relationship and personal relationship. Remember to keep personal disclosures appropriate for children’s age and within your professional status.
- Learn about the important people in each child’s life. Talk with family members. Learn about siblings and friends.
Next, understand that you have strengths you can draw upon to prevent child abuse and neglect. These are known as protective factors. You learned about the Strengthening Families protective factors in the Child Abuse Identification and Reporting course. You can review the Protective Factors Framework by visiting https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/. The table below provides an overview of the protective factors that are important in your work with families as well as in your own efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect in center settings.
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.
The same protective factors that help families cope with challenges apply to all of us as adults. Let’s explore each of the protective factors and how they might apply to your work. This material has been adapted from the Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Adult Resilience: We all need the ability to cope with the stresses of everyday life. The emotions you feel may make you feel less capable of doing your job. Stress reduces your capacity to think creatively, be patient, problem solve, and try new skills – all strategies that are necessary when working with school-age children. Each one of us has strengths we can draw upon: faith, flexibility, humor, communication skills, problem-solving skills, mutually supportive caring relationships, or the ability to identify and access outside resources (https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/preventing/). We can take the time to make sure we nurture and expand these strengths in ourselves and others.
- Knowledge of Child Development & Positive Youth Development: It seems obvious, but understanding typical development will help you do your job. Unrealistic expectations for behavior are major risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Make sure you know what to expect from children 5- to 12-years old in your care. In a stressful situation, this knowledge helps you remain calm, recognize the child’s behavior as a sign of development, and understand what skills you can help the child develop next. It’s also important that you continue to build your professional skills across your career. Seek out professional development and try new ideas that will keep your work fresh, exciting, and rewarding.
- Social Connections: Research suggests that strong social connections promote health, wellness, and longevity. By creating or strengthening social relationships in your own life, you will be better able to do your job well.
- Concrete Supports: We all need tools to help us do our jobs. It is OK — and important — to ask for help when it is needed. Talk to your trainer administrator about ways you can get new ideas for your program, individual children, or families. Also remember that you are not immune to stress outside of work, too. You might be experiencing any number of stressors at home. Seek out and use community resources, whether it’s assistance with filing taxes, finding quality health care, or job assistance for a spouse or partner.
- Social and Emotional Competence of Children: This is the foundation of the work we do every day in child development programs. You will learn much more about this topic in the Social and Guidance courses. For now, understand your role as one of promoting healthy relationships, communication skills, and self-expression.
What do programs that prevent child abuse and neglect look like? They promote the five protective factors. Here’s what you might see in a program that promotes the protective factors:
- Facilitates friendships and mutual support for families Your program should provide opportunities for families to interact with one another and build relationships with one another.
- Strengthens parenting. Everyone needs tips sometimes. Your program can offer families learning experiences right when they need them most. For example, your program could offer families of school-age children workshops on homework, pre-teen dating or friendships, puberty, etc.
- Responds to family crises. When crises happen, families need to know there is somewhere they can go for support. Your program might not have all the answers, but it should be a place where families can connect with resources. This might be food, housing, employment, or medical services.
- Links families to services and opportunities. Your program can connect families with parent support programs, mental health services, employment opportunities, and many other resources in our community. Communicating regularly with parents in your program can help determine if there are specific needs that aren’t being met and assist in linking families with community resources. Asking parents what supports they need instead of assuming what they need can build trust and strengthen the relationship between families and caregivers.
- Facilitates children’s social and emotional development. This is the foundation of everything we do in school-age programs. You will learn more about how you can help children develop in this course and in the Social & Emotional Development course.
- Observes and responds to early warning signs of abuse and neglect. If concerns are recognized early, your program can help families build their own protective factors and get the help they need to prevent negative outcomes.
- Values and supports parents. Your program should offer families leadership opportunities in the programs. Be sure you talk to families every day and let them know that you recognize the trust they have placed in you.
Talk to your director or coach or Training & Curriculum Specialist about the supports your program offers or if you have any concerns about a family. Watch this video to learn more about the Protective Factors framework.
Throughout your work with children, you should prioritize relationships. Based on what you read in this lesson, you should:
- Establish secure bonds with children in your care.
- Observe children for signs of child abuse or neglect (as described in the Child Abuse and Neglect Identification and Reporting course).
- Identify the resources available for families at your program. Talk to your trainer or director to learn more.
Completing this Course
For more information on what to expect in this course, the Child Abuse: Prevention 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: Prevention 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.
Think about the protective factors that you learned about in this lesson. What do you think a program looks like that embraces these protective factors? In the Building a Safe Place for School-Age Children & Youth activity, you will describe what you think a program looks like that promotes these factors. Use words, pictures, art, or other means to represent your ideas. If you need additional space, you may use materials available at your program. Share your ideas with your trainer, coach or administrator.
To learn more about the Protective Factors Framework, view and complete the Strengthening Families brochure. This resource describes each of the protective factors in depth. Think about how these protective factors apply to families and yourself.
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. (2021). Violence Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Definitions of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/define.pdf
Felitti, Vince J. et al. (1998) Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 14, p 245-258. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8 https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
Harris, Nadine Burke. (2014). Nadine Burke Harris: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime [Video file]. https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime
Military Family Advocacy Programs. http://www.militaryonesource.mil/abuse/service-providers
Prevent Child Abuse America (Ed.). (n.d.). Knowing the Protective Factors. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://preventchildabuse.org/resources/knowing-protective-factors/
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 (2021). Child Maltreatment. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/data-research/child-maltreatment