Child abuse is the intentional infliction on children of physical, sexual, and emotional mistreatment by a parent, guardian, or other adult entrusted with their care. Teachers are among the most important people needing to be able both to identify and defend against child abuse since they are in close daily contact with their students. As mandated reporters, teachers need to better understand the wide variability of situations and behaviors that might suggest child abuse. This entry provides an overview.
According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report in 2004, 64.5 percent of child abuse survivors suffered neglect (including medical neglect), 17.5 percent are physically abused, 9.7 percent are sexually abused, and 7.0 percent are emotionally or psychologically abused. Not all children survive their abuse. Approximately 1,500 children died in 2004 as a result of abuse or neglect.
Completely accurate figures are difficult to obtain because evidence of abuse and neglect is not necessarily clear-cut. Most cases of abuse and neglect never get reported because there are no outward physical effects in the case of neglect or psychological and emotional abuse, or there are attempts to cover up or hide these physical effects. In the case of sexual abuse, there is secrecy and shame that surrounds the survivor, and potentially the family, and often prevents the survivor from coming forward to tell his or her story.
The Reporting Role
There is one commonality in almost all cases of child abuse—abused children go to school. In all fifty states, teachers and other school officials are mandated reporters, as are doctors, nurses, any law enforcement official, and a long list of other professionals who come into contact with children in various capacities. Through its legislature, each state defines abuse and prescribes the rules for those who report cases.
Teachers and other school officials who have a reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused must file a report with the appropriate social service agency for their particular state, such as Child Protective Services (CPS) in California or the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Florida. Some schools and/or districts have a policy that states that the teacher or other school official first report their suspicion to the school’s principal, while others expect the teacher or school official to contact the social service agency on their own.
Whichever is the case, a report of suspected child abuse must be filed in a timely fashion—typically between twenty-four and seventy-two hours after becoming aware of the suspected abuse either by phone or face-to-face. This is followed by filing a written report within seventy-two hours of the original report. Once the report is on file with the appropriate social service agency, a determination is made whether or not to investigate the allegations of abuse or neglect by child protective services based on the information provided.
Because teachers and other school officials are mandated reporters of child abuse, each state provides the mandated reporter with immunity from the civil and criminal prosecution that may arise from reporting suspected child abuse and neglect, as long as the report was done in “good faith” and “without malice.” This immunity is given so that teachers or other mandated reporters will be more willing to file a report if they do not fear being held criminally or civilly liable.
The Caregiving Role
Even though the investigation of the alleged child abuse is out of the hands of the classroom teacher, it is by no means the end of it. For the classroom teacher, this is only the first step since the abused child is a member of a classroom learning community that spends six to eight hours together five days a week. During the week, children spend more of their waking hours in school with their classmates and their teacher than they do with their families.
An abused child is a wounded child. Depending on the type of abuse he or she has suffered, his or her wounds may not be visible, but those emotional scars are still very much a part of the child’s psyche. This emotional pain of abuse may present itself in a multitude of ways and depending on the age and situation of the survivor. Children may act aggressively with their peers or be disruptive in the classroom. They may be hyper vigilant, constantly on the lookout for possible danger, or they may dissociate by mentally separating their minds from their bodies in order to escape the emotions running through their heads.
In terms of the responsibility of the teacher, first and foremost he or she needs to create for the abused child a classroom community that is loving and supportive. Having an established classroom routine and a predictable, stable environment where the abused child (and every child) feels safe and secure is extremely important.
The teacher should also have fair and consistent rules and consequences where children understand the limits of inappropriate behavior in the classroom. The teacher can also teach problem-solving skills and ways to deal with anger to help empower these children that allows them to regain at least a small portion of control back in their lives.
Child abuse is a basic problem that must be confronted by educators in a well-thought-out and systematic manner. It is a problem that almost every teacher will have to confront in his or her career, and it needs to be well understood from both a policy and a practical perspective.
- Administration of Children and Families, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Child maltreatment. Available from http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/ programs/cb/pubs/cm04/cm04.pdf
- Gootman, M. E. (1993). Reaching and teaching abused children. Childhood Education, 70, 15–19.
- Hopper, J. (2007). Child abuse: Statistics, research and resources. Retrieved on April 15, 2007, from http://www.jimhopper.com/abstats
- Lowenthal, B. (1996). Educational implications of child abuse. Intervention in School & Clinic, 32, 21–25.
- Michigan State University. (n.d.). MSU Chance at Childhood program. Available from http://www.chanceat childhood.msu.edu/pdf/MandatedReporter.pdf
- Yell, M. L. (1996). Reporting child abuse and neglect: Legal requirements. Preventing School Failure, 40, 161–163.
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