Child Abuse and Neglect

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Although federal legislation provides basic guidelines for definitions of child abuse and neglect, each state has specific laws. State statutes describe abuse in terms of "harm or threatened harm" to a child and mandate when to intervene. Exemptions vary in each state but can include religious exemption, corporal punishment, poverty, and cultural practices. States usually provide separate definitions for different types of abuse and neglect. It is important for educators to become familiar with the statutes of their state.

Being abused and/or neglected can have a long-term negative impact upon children. They have an increased risk of being developmentally delayed and experiencing social and emotional difficulties. Abused children are more likely than the general population to use drugs, become violent, and engage in delinquent behavior.

Educators are mandated by law to report suspected cases to the local child protective services agency or to the police department. Since abused and neglected children are represented in most classrooms, teachers and other school employees need to become aware of the signs of abuse. However, one indication is usually not enough; a cluster of symptoms needs to be observed before a report is made. Dated, written observations of concerns for a child are extremely helpful when reporting.

General indicators that a child may be abused or neglected are early arrival at school and/or requests to stay late, poor impulse control, extreme sadness, rigidity, sleepiness, and/or destructiveness toward self, others or animals. These children often seem unable to trust others or to concentrate. Distinct changes in behavior, character and/or school performance are also signs of possible abuse.

Abusive parents or caregivers tend to have unrealistic expectations for the child, deny the existence of difficulties, or blame the school or teacher for the child's problems. They may show little concern for their child, request harsh discipline, and/or isolate him or her. Observing extreme parental overprotectiveness or harshness can provide additional information concerning the possibility of abuse.

Forms of Neglect and Abuse
Neglect of a child means failing to provide for his or her basic needs. Neglect can be physical, educational or psychological. Physical needs involve providing food, clothing, medical care, and supervision. Suspect physical neglect when these needs are not being met, and when a child is absent often, begs for or steals food or other items, and/or appears unkempt. Educational neglect is defined in some states as occurring when no schooling or special education needs are provided by the parents or caregivers. Psychological neglect occurs when love and support are withheld, when children are exposed to spousal mistreatment, or when alcohol or other drugs are abused and/or are available to a child.

Physical abuse occurs when an adult intentionally inflicts physical injury upon a child. It includes punching, shaking, kicking, burning, beating, or otherwise physically hurting a child. Active children acquire some injuries through play that are mostly over bony areas such as knees, elbows, and shins. If a child has injuries on other parts of the body, i.e. black eyes, bite marks, burns, bruises, welts, swelling and/or broken bones, they are more likely to indicate abuse. Additionally, if parents give conflicting or unconvincing explanations for their child's injuries or the child does not receive needed medical attention, physical maltreatment needs to be considered.

Emotional abuse happens when adults thwart a child's mental health and/or his or her social, emotional and/or cognitive development. It may include using extreme or bizarre forms of punishment, such as locking the child in a closet or tying him or her to furniture for a long periods of time. Emotional abuse also includes constantly disparaging a child or blaming him or her for family problems. For additional understanding of the emotionally abused child see Emotional Abuse of Children.

Sexual abuse is inappropriate sexual behavior between a child and an older person. It includes intercourse, sodomy, oral sex, fondling, prostitution, group sex, pornography, and forcing a child to observe sexual acts. For detailed information concerning sexual abuse and what to do if you suspect it see Helping the Sexually Abused Child.

Child abuse and neglect occur in all socioeconomic classes, but families are at greater risk if the caregivers or parents were abused. Groups such as a Parents Anonymous can provide help for abusive adults who want to change their behavior.

School personnel have the responsibility to report abuse not only to protect the child, but to stop the cycle of abused children possibly becoming abusive parents. Since schools are often the only place these children go other than their homes, educators play an indispensable role as reporters and protectors of abused or neglected children in their community.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []. 3/04

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