- Recognize the signs of abuse and neglect.
- Describe strategies your program can use to prevent child abuse and neglect in homes and in the program.
- Describe how to respond if child 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. However, this lesson gives a basic introduction to the topic. More detailed information is available in the Virtual Lab School courses, Child Abuse: Prevention and Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting.
Early childhood professionals are mandated reporters. This means that you and all the staff members you serve are legally bound to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. It is your job to ensure that staff members demonstrate competence in child abuse identification, prevention, and reporting procedures. 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
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 there is a pattern of behavior or multiple signs, however, you may have a reason to be concerned. As a trainer or coach, it is your responsibility to make sure staff members know the signs. “Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect: Signs and Symptoms (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019) offers a list of child and parent behaviors that may be signs of abuse. A factsheet is available at: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/whatiscan/. Share this factsheet with staff members. Talk about signs. Answer staff members’ questions.
Teach staff members to use their observation skills and their knowledge of each child. Remind them that activities like the daily health check (discussed in the Healthy Course) are practical ways for them to be proactive about noticing signs of abuse or neglect. Abuse can happen at home or in your program. You must prepare staff to look for signs of abuse in both settings.
Teach staff members what to do if they suspect abuse or neglect. Procedures may vary across programs, states, and countries. Provide training, forms, and follow-up support to help staff members know what to do when they encounter suspected cases of abuse.
Throughout this lesson an experienced teacher will share her experiences reporting child abuse and neglect. These video examples could be useful to share with staff members who are wondering if their feelings and experiences are “normal.” Remember, these three experiences occurred at different times and different programs over a career. Do not worry: abuse and neglect are rarely things that staff members encounter every day or even every year.
Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect at Home
You and program staff can provide resources to families and model effective problem-solving approaches. There is a lot you can do to minimize the risk of child abuse and neglect. You can think of your role as one to educate families and provide awareness of child abuse and neglect.
To minimize the risk of abuse and neglect, your program can serve families on three levels (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). Consider ways you might support your program in the following ways:
- Your program can make parents aware of the resources around them. You can hang posters about positive parenting techniques. As a trainer, you can host parent education nights about nurturing, attachment, or positive discipline. Your program can organize family support groups. These supports could benefit all of the families in your community, regardless of risk for child abuse or neglect.
- Your program may identify families most at risk for child abuse or neglect, perhaps based on recent traumatic life changes, such as deployment or loss. Your program or community can organize a parent education class specifically about dealing with deployment stress or loss. You can help families find respite care. These interventions can meet families where they are and help them meet their own needs.
- Your program might serve families who have already experienced abuse or neglect. These families need systematic, individualized supports. At this level, your program should connect families with mental health support for parents and children, mentoring programs, or specialized support groups.
In the first video, a teacher describes her experience reporting child neglect. Pay special attention to how she became suspicious, what signs she noticed and the positive outcomes.
Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect On-Site
It is likely that your program already has features in place to reduce the risk of child abuse. Many newer facilities are built with vision panels so individuals can see into the classroom from the hallway and outside. Restrooms for young children 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. You must secure your program’s touch policy and make it available to staff members. Each staff member must be fully aware of the policy and their responsibilities as professionals. Never permit staff to use harsh discipline practices. The following practices should never be used:
There is also a lot staff can do in their classrooms to promote safety for children. Good room arrangement and design is the first step. Inspect the classrooms to make sure there are no blind spots. Staff members need to be able to see all children at all times. 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?
You and the staff 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 procedures required at your place of employment.
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 and your staff for what happens after the call.
Watch this video to hear about the emotions and events that might follow a report of child abuse or neglect. What advice does she give across these videos about making the call? Preparing for the call?
In most states, reports 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 and your staff emotionally for what follows a report. First, you need to help the reporter understand that he or she may never learn the final outcome of the report. They 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 staff members fear that making a report may get the child in trouble and may lead to more abuse. It is also the case that you and the staff likely 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. Remind staff they have done the right thing. Do not let fear of what might happen next stop them from doing what they can to protect the child.
It can be especially difficult to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect when the alleged perpetrator is one of your co-workers. Staff members might doubt themselves or question what they saw. They might worry about how that individual or other staff will treat them. They might be afraid of publicity or damaging the reputation of your program. They might even be discouraged from reporting by coworkers or leaders. Remind staff members it is their job to keep children safe and to speak for children. Always encourage staff members to trust their instincts. If they suspect abuse or neglect, make a report. As a trainer, be sensitive to the conflicting emotions staff members feel when they suspect abuse or neglect. Support staff members and help them know how to follow your program’s reporting procedures.
Listen as another child-development professional shares an experience with inappropriate behavior in a program.
Take care of yourself and encourage staff members to take care of themselves, too. 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 healthy 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 in the What If...Suspecting Abuse and Neglect Within Your Program activity and answer the questions. Talk to a colleague about your responses. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.
It is important to think about how you and other staff members protect yourselves from accusations of abuse and neglect. Review the Preventing Child Abuse Checklist and self-reflect on the steps you take. Share it with staff and talk with them about how each of you can continue to protect children from abuse and neglect.
The Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention Best Practices Checklist can be used to observe and monitor staff members’ understanding and use of your program’s policies. Similar practices are observed on the Competency Reflection in the Child Abuse: Prevention and Safe Environments courses for direct care staff. The Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention Best Practices Checklist, however, is a brief tool that supports continued observation of best practices among staff that have completed these courses but may need additional support and feedback around child abuse prevention. This checklist can also be used by Training & Curriculum Specialists and Program Managers to provide feedback to staff members that do not provide direct care to children in the program.
Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention Best Practices Checklist
American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education (2020). CFOC Standards Online Database. Aurora, CO; National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. Also available from https://nrckids.org/CFOC
Child Welfare Information Gateway (2019). What is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/whatiscan/
Craig, S. E. (2008). Reaching and Teaching Children who Hurt. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing, Co.
Feeney, S. & Freeman, N. K. (2018). Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (2021). Coping with Trauma, Stress, and Violence. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/coping-trauma-stress-and-violence