- Define child abuse and neglect, including familial and institutional abuse and neglect.
- Describe your legal and ethical obligation to report abuse and neglect wherever it occurs.
- Recognize protective factors that prevent child abuse and neglect.
- Describe training requirements for staff and your responsibility regarding training.
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. At least one in seven children in the U.S. experience abuse or neglect in the United States per year (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). Most of us will never understand why an individual abuses or neglects. The purpose of this lesson is to:
- Help you understand what child abuse and neglect is
- Help you understand your responsibilities in reporting and preventing abuse and neglect
- Help you understand your training and professional development responsibilities for staff members who work with children ages birth to 12 years
As a Training & Curriculum Specialist, you will have the role of teaching staff members how to identify, report, and respond to suspicions of child abuse and neglect. To do your job effectively, you must be knowledgeable about child abuse and neglect. It is also important to remember that 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).(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.
The following sections define child abuse and neglect. All direct care staff members have read identical definitions, so you can communicate a consistent message with this content.
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 overt actions like hitting or kicking, but a child can also be harmed when an adult fails to provide for the child’s well-being.
- 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.MIL 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 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. MIL 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 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 staff members 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 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 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.
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.
Individual: Three categories of children 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.
Family: There are also some characteristics of adults 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 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.
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 more at-risk for abuse or neglect to occur.
Community: 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 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.
What is My Role in Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect?
As a Training & Curriculum Specialist, you have a legal and ethical professional obligation to protect children from harm. You and all the staff in your building are mandated reporters 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. To help staff understand the legal ramifications of reporting or failing to report, you can visit the Child Information Gateway’s resources about state statutes and penalties (https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/state/).
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, you may also work closely with staff of your installation’s Family Advocacy Program (FAP) to create a climate that promotes reporting. Watch this video to learn more about FAP’s scope and mission.
A major part of your role is training, supporting, and strengthening staff. You will ensure staff members participate in annual child abuse and neglect trainings. It is also likely that your will be the first person staff members come to when they are concerned about a child or family. You have an important role to listen actively, take concerns seriously, and provide staff with the professional and emotional support they need during stressful times. You will learn more in Lesson 4 about the signs of stress and how you can help staff members build resilience.
Model a Commitment to Keeping Children Safe
As a mandated reporter and a role model for staff members, if you suspect child abuse or neglect, you must make a report. You must also provide staff members with the information and support they need to make a report if they suspect child abuse or neglect. You will learn more about reporting in subsequent lessons, but for now understand that you play a critical role in building a program culture that prioritizes each child’s safety.
Model Collaboration With Community Organizations
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.
Clearly, there are many other professionals who share your mission to protect children from harm. You can build relationships with these other professionals and share resources. Reach out to your local FAP office. Learn about how they can support your work with children and families.
Training & Curriculum Specialists also have an important opportunity to partner with Prevention Education trainers and FAP clinicians. Some program staff members may view FAP as dealing only with families in the aftermath of violence, but, in reality, FAP has just as much focus on prevention and supporting healthy familial interactions. FAP has general counseling for individuals, couples and families dealing with life transitions or long-term mental health issues. FAP is designed to provide educational, group, or counseling services before an incident of abuse or neglect occurs. You can refer families to FAP even if no abuse or neglect is occurring. You can also refer families of infants and toddlers to the New Parent Support Program on many installations. They offer many support groups and trainings, and they can partner with you to provide staff trainings.
You are a mandated reporter, and so are law enforcement personnel, physicians, nurses, social workers, school personnel, Youth and School personnel, psychologists, and other medical personnel within your community.
Clearly, there are many other professionals who share your mission to protect children from harm. In your community, law enforcement personnel, physicians, nurses, social workers, school personnel, and medical personnel are usually mandated reporters. You can build relationships with these other professionals and share resources. Learn about how they can support your work with children and families.
Model a Protective Factors Approach
What do programs that promote the Protective Factors Approach look like? Watch this video to find out.
- Help build awareness about child abuse and neglect in your program and community.
- Learn about resources in your communityMIL or on your installation you can share with families.
- Visit https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/ to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework approach.
Make sure staff members fulfill their annual training requirements for child abuse and neglect identification and reporting. This is more than just offering training and making sure basic requirements are met. Make sure staff members really understand what they are looking for and how to respond if they have a suspicion of abuse or neglect.
Also be sure to observe staff members for signs of stress and provide them with the professional and emotional support they need. You will learn more about this in Lesson 4.
Continue working through this course and the Child Abuse Prevention course to learn more about how to observe and support staff members.
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 Training & Curriculum Specialist Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting Course Guide.
To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:
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 is very real.
This activity introduces you to Braden and Bethany’s story. Some direct care staff members have read the same scenario in their lessons, but they will answer different reflection questions. This story has been specifically chosen to highlight in the T&CS track because this family’s experiences might be applicable across your work with different age groups. The family had children of different ages in a variety of child and youth programs. The purpose of this activity is for everyone to be familiar with the facts of a real case and to reflect on issues that are relevant to their roles.
Download and print the Case Study Reflection activity. Read Braden and Bethany’s Story. Then answer the reflection questions. We also encourage you to read the suggested responses from experts. These will provide additional information and extend your learning.
Reflecting on Abuse and Neglect
Before identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect, you must have a basic understanding of the terms. 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.
Abuse Fact Sheet
Center for the Study of Social Policy (2018). About strengthening families and the protective framework. https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Fast facts: preventing child abuse and neglect. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/fastfact.html
Crosson-Tower, C. (2021). Understanding child abuse and neglect, 10th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2018). Preventing child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/preventingcan.pdf
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 (2022.). Military family advocacy programs. https://www.militaryonesource.mil/family-relationships/family-life/preventing-abuse-neglect/the-family-advocacy-program/
The University of Minnesota Center for Research and Outreach. (2017). Physical and psychological safety research review. www.MilitaryREACH.org