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Taking Action

“The average child abuser will abuse 250 different children during the course of their lifetime. So any time we have a child abuser and fail to report the abuse, we have just let them free to abuse 249 other children.”

Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General
Dec. 7, 1993; National Press Club Luncheon

Child abuse and neglect is everyone’s responsibility. In order to get help for the abused child and his family, professionals and the general public must report suspected abuse and neglect. You do not need to prove that a child is being abused and neglected, you only need to have a suspicion that it is occurring.

Beginning in 1964, all states have laws that require all child abuse and neglect to be reported. Each state changes their laws frequently and some of the phrasing limits the requirements of professionals to report only abusers known to them in their official capacity.

When you report suspected child abuse and neglect in accordance with the law, you are immune or protected from civil and criminal liability. For more information on your state child abuse reporting law, check with your local or state Child Protective Services.

When you report suspected child abuse and neglect to your local child protection agency, you should be prepared to provide information about the abuse or neglect, the child and the family.
Many people do not want to get involved and sometimes fear retaliation from the family. Most states will accept anonymous reports. Sometimes a relative will report the abuse but fears disruption in family relations and so chooses to make the report anonymously.

However, anonymity cannot be absolutely guaranteed. If there is a court procedure, your testimony may be essential to the outcome of the case. That is why when you make the report, the child protective agency will almost always insist on your name.

So when making a report, you can assume the parents will guess where it came from. If the family can convince the agency that no abuse has occurred, you have opened yourself up to legal action by the parents. But do not let this stop you from reporting flagrant abuse. The protection of the child is the primary concern.

There are two kinds of evidence upon which a report is based. The first is direct evidence, observation of the child being abused or neglected by the parent or parents; the second is circumstantial evidence, observation of bruises and wounds on the child’s body that were not caused by accidental injury.

Once the report is made, the child protective agency is responsible for determining the child’s safety. The child does not have to be seriously injured to be considered abused. A report can be made for potential injury.

Potential injury is usually observed by neighbors, friends or relatives. A toddler not supervised in dangerous surroundings, such as a parking lot, is a potential accident waiting to happen.

Mickey, age two and a half, was always riding his bicycle in the apartment building parking lot. His mother never seemed to be near. She was either in the laundry room or talking to friends at the pool. She seemed to rely on a two and a half year- old’s judgement or the alertness of drivers. The inevitable happened – Mickey was killed by a man who never saw the little boy.

All forms of child abuse must be reported. This includes physical, sexual, emotional, negligent treatment and exploitation. It is a major decision whether to report it, and here are some examples of observation which might help you decide:

•  when you observe the child being injured or sexually abused
•  when a child needs medical attention
•  when a child asks you for help
•  when you see the potential for injury
•  when you observe a child home alone
•  when you know a child is left alone with an unsafe person
•  when a child is not sent to school
•  when a child is hungry and not being fed
•  when you discover a child is being exploited
•  when you observe unsanitary conditions in the home
•  when you see suspicious injuries on the child
•  when the child is inappropriately clothed
•  when you see that the parents do not know or care about the whereabouts of their children
•  when you see that the parents are incapable of caring for the child
•  when you see a child in danger from a vicious animal

A neighbor can usually tell when the child is left home alone or is locked our of the house. When I was a child in the High Works in Pennsylvania, a neighbor who had six young children locked the children out of the house every afternoon. They would go to other homes for a drink of water or to use the bathroom. I can still see one of the little boys, crying at the locked door and calling for her. Today that would be considered physical neglect, and she would be reported. There were no child protection laws at that time, and although the entire neighborhood knew it happened, nothing was ever done about it. What is even stranger is that no one ever approached her or said anything about this behavior.

The most common way that child abuse and neglect is recognized is through the child’s and parent’s manner and behavior. Is the parent’s explanation of an injury different from a child’s? Is it plausible? Although it cannot be predicted who will abuse his child, there are signs of risk. People at high risk include parents who abuse alcohol and drugs, young parents who are not prepared for the role of parenting, families experiencing great stress and who have poor coping skills and no one to turn to for support, and parents who have difficulty bonding with their infant.

“Help! I don’t like my child,” wailed Clara. She was the competent mother of three active school-age children. “Sure I love all my children. But Matthew presses every issue and drives me up the wall. Sometimes I can’t stand him.”

Any time Clara is under stress, Matthew will be at the receiving end of that stress. She needs counseling to learn how to handle situations like the one described above.

Janet was at the grocery store with her preteen son James. It had been an especially trying day for Janet at work and James was being a smart-aleck and not helping her with the groceries. She asked him to walk to the back of the store and get some juice. He answered in a derogatory manner, and before she realized it she slapped him in the face. The store clerk reported her to the child protective agency, and after an embarrassing investigation, it was decided that no child abuse had taken place. Even James said that he had provoked his tired mother into this action, and it was not a part of their relationship.

Enlightened awareness has lead many people to believe that any form of inadequate or poor child-rearing skills should be reported to the authorities. Sometimes this is a mistake. An investigation by the child protection agency can very traumatic to a family. In the situation involving the store clerk, the investigator didn’t have enough information to call one slap, child abuse. Rather, it was a mother’s poor judgment.

Parents’ past “seriously harmful” conduct is a telltale story of their abusive habits. If they harmed a child in the past, it is reasonable to believe they will do it again. When there is more than one incident, make sure that the worker assigned to the case knows about it.

A report should be made if only one parent is involved in the abuse. Sometimes a nonabusive parent plays a passive role and is just as guilty as the abuser. In an Illinois case, a woman was sentenced to jail because she let her two children get into a car with her drunken husband, and the court considered it endangerment. It was proven that she knew her husband had been drinking and was not capable of driving the car safely.

News story:

Three boys were removed from their home after social workers learned that at least two of them were regularly locked in dog cages. Social workers and police who entered the home found the six year-old boy locked in a portable dog cage in his bedroom. The boy told the police they were put in the cage when they misbehaved, or at night.

Children are often mistreated when in the care of people other than their parents. When a parent fails to protect the child from abuse by a boyfriend or other person connected with the family, they should be reported.

Abuse of children in foster homes and day-care centers is a serious problem. There are a million stories told by people who have been abused while living in foster homes. It seems that these children were put at risk and had no recourse to escape the abuse they received. Their only way out was to grow up and move away.

Physicians who don’t file reports of suspected abuse are at risk for lawsuit. The negligent failure to report may be considered professional malpractice.

At one time, it was thought only a physician had the expertise to identify an abused child. But today, other professional groups have gained these same skills: nurses, emergency room technicians, dentists, coroners, social workers, school teachers, day-care workers and law enforcement personnel.

A film or photo processor is required to report any pictures of pornography or child sexual exploitation. Clergy, attorneys, counselors and pharmacists are expected to report any suspicious behavior of child abuse. The list includes everyone.

A child is very seldom abused in public; it usually occurs in the privacy of the home. Children are afraid to tell anyone when they are abused. When a child says that a certain person hurt them, it usually is true. It is important to reassure the child that they are not to blame for their parent’s abuse. The misbehavior of a child never justifies extreme punishment.

Religious beliefs and cultural practices also never jusitfy severe punishment. Forty marks on the body of a four year-old girl were evidence of cruel and extreme punishment, and her mother was reported.

It is more difficult to report suspected sexual abuse. It usually takes the examination of a physician to prove this. However, in most cases only the statement of the child is needed to establish incidences of sexual abuse. A teacher may be suspicious when a child’s interest and behavior has changed abruptly.

If a home is in disarray and dirty, it is usually the case that the children are neglected also.

Signs of physical deprivation of the child:

•  there is no one at home to take care of the children
•  the child is chronically late or truant from school
•  the child is developing at a slower rate than his age would suggest
•  there is evidence of malnutrition
•  the child is dirty and ungroomed
•  the child expresses hunger
•  the child is tired and listless

All these signs indicate that the child is not being taken care of. No one from a disorganized, filthy home can function correctly. A kitchen that is full of garbage, dirty dishes piled high and infested with mice is a sign of an adult who is not functioning properly. This, in fact, may be a sign that the parent is mentally ill. It certainly should be investigated to see what can be done to help the children. Perhaps they would be better off in a different environment.

An example is the story of twelve children who belonged to four families and were found by police in a rodent-infested apartment with scraps of food on the floor, and no working refrigerator or hot water. The children were in all stages of dress. The oldest was eight years old. The police had to wrap the children in blankets to take them outside, as there were no warm jackets in the apartment.

A child’s description of the home may be the signal to report this condition. But keep in mind, there is a distinction between poverty and neglect.

When reporting a serious case or an emergency situation, the report should be made to law enforcement agencies. These conditions need instant response, but if the report can wait until business hours, the child protective agency is the place to call.

The report is given orally and then a written report follows. It is helpful if you keep a photocopy of the written report. If there is any possible danger to the children, or to yourself, the parents should not be told of the report. Few of them are happy to hear that they have been reported to the authorities and some anger should be expected.

Children does need not know about the report. They may be too young to understand, and they always fear the anger of the parent. Even if they are older, they fear the disruption of the family and the possible chance they will be sent somewhere else.

Sometimes the parents can be notified. This is true in the case of sexual abuse charges, and many times they may be relieved that an outsider has become involved.

Child abuse and neglect is everyone’s responsiblity.

All states have laws that require that all child abuse and neglect be reported.

All states will take anonymous reports, but they prefer the person’s name so they can obtain more information.

There are two kinds of evidence on which a report is based: direct evidence, abuse that is observed occurring; and circumstantial evidence, when bruises and injuries are observed, and abuse is suspected.

Potential injury should be reported.

Any sign of endangerment or neglect should be reported.

Physicians who don’t file reports of suspected abuse are at risk for lawsuit. It could be called malpractice.

A child is very seldom abused in public, it is usually in a private place.

Listen to the child, as they usually tell the truth.

When reporting an emergency or a serious case, law enforcement agencies should be contacted.

A child’s description of the home may be the signal to report conditions there.

No child should have to live in a dirty, rodent-infested environment.