In recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month, Ryther Therapist Lindsey Beaky MA, LMHCA offers some insights on how you can do your part to protect children. She explains the often daunting and ambiguous task of when and how to involve Child Protective Services.
Who should report child abuse and neglect?
Professionals who work with children regularly, such as teachers, health care professionals and therapists, are certainly an important part of the recognition and prevention of child abuse. These groups are considered “mandated reporters,” which means they are bound by law to report any signs or suspicion of abuse or neglect of child. While this is April Child Abuse Prevention Month, it’s important to note that most intakes (about 63%) by Child Protection Services are for neglect while 27% are for physical abuse. Whatever the reason, it’s important for all members of our community to understand and take part in this process in order to keep children safe.
You may be a close friend or family member of a child who you suspect is being abused. It’s important to learn to recognize the signs of child abuse and how to approach the child, the parent or both. No matter what, the bottom line is that if you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, it’s vital to call Child Protective Services. Calling CPS does not necessarily mean that a child will be removed from the home. It simply starts a process and creates a record of reports that could, in the end, help the child and family.
How can you recognize child abuse?
In order to recognize potential child abuse, it’s important to understand the different behaviors both parents and children display when abuse is occurring in the family.
Some warning signs that a child is being abused or neglected:
- Her behavior or school performance changes suddenly
- She comes to school early or late, is absent frequently, or does not want to go home
- Medical needs brought to a parent’s attention are not met
- She is watchful or anxious around adults
- She has bruises or injuries that cannot be explained
- She has consistently poor hygiene
- She begs for or steals food or money
Some warning signs that are unique to child sexual abuse include:
- He has difficulty walking or sitting
- He refuses to change for gym
- He reports bedwetting, having nightmares or a sudden change in appetite
- He displays sexual knowledge that is unusual when compared to other kids in his age group
Parents who may be physically or emotionally abusing a child may have these behaviors:
- They offer no explanation, or conflicting explanations, for injuries
- They describe their child in a negative way
- They use harsh physical discipline or are indifferent toward their child
- They abuse alcohol or other drugs
- They refuse offers of help for the child’s problems
Parents who are sexually abusing their child may have the following behaviors:
- They limit the child’s contact with others and are extremely protective
- They are jealous or controlling of other family members
- They are secretive and isolated
Most importantly, if a child reports that they are being physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, or neglected, it is critical that you assume they are telling the truth and that they picked to tell you, as a person who can help them.
How do you approach the child?
If you believe you have reason to suspect any form of child abuse or neglect, make time to talk to the child about this right away. Find a confidential location and point out what you’ve noticed about their appearance or demeanor. Ask them to tell you about home. Who do they live with? Who are they close to? Are they afraid of anyone? Be aware that if a child is experiencing sexual abuse, he or she may not recognize it as “bad.” When you call Child Protective Services, they will ask for specific information, including: the child’s and parents’ names, birthdate, address, and when an event occurred. CPS and the local police will then take steps to protect the child if he or she is in immediate danger.
How do you approach the child’s parent?
Depending on your relationship with a child’s parent and the nature of the abuse suspected, it may be most helpful for you to assume that the parent is struggling and would accept assistance or support if given to them. Many parents lack the skills, resources, and knowledge to do better, even when they really want to. Approach the parent with care and concern. Find out what the family needs. Provide some resources such as information about parenting classes or counseling, and if you are a family member or friend, offer to take the child for a weekend so that the parents can have a break.
While you do not have to tell them that you are calling CPS, it’s extremely important that you do call CPS, even if you speak to the parents and provide resources and support. If abuse is occurring in a home, Child Protective Services will take additional steps to ensure that parents are connected with services and that children are protected.
What happens next?
Once child abuse or neglect is reported, you may begin to witness serious changes in the family, such as a child being removed from the home or a parent going to jail. Things may get worse for the family before they get better due to separation or sudden involvement with the legal system. Remember, safety for a child is the number one priority, and if your actions meet that goal, the child is ultimately better off than before. Also, if a family is willing and able to change, they will take the steps to do so and may eventually feel thankful for being given the opportunity.
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Notes from Lee Grogg, Ryther Executive Director: Washington’s Children’s Administration periodically sends out reports with data about its activities. You might be interested in what some of that data is.
In the State’s fiscal year 2011 (ending last July 1) there were 77,882 referrals received by CPS reporting alleged abuse or neglect. 37,992 were “screened in” for investigation while 35,772 were deemed for some reason not meeting a standard for further involvement of the agency. In short, about half of all reports made get investigated. If you total the “screened in” and “screened out” figures there is a gap of some 4,118 referrals that is unexplained.
On June 30, 2011, there were nearly 10,000 children in the care of the Children’s Administration. This figure has remained surprisingly stable over the years. Of the 9,987 children in care, 90% (8,966) were in out-of-home care of some kind. A little over a thousand of the children were in State Dependent In-Home care. 3,174 of the children in out-of-home care were placed with relatives. This figure has increased via policy emphasis in recent years. 5,819 (65%) were in foster care or group homes.
The most common reasons for intakes were Negligence or Maltreatment (62.7%), Physical Abuse (27.3%) and Sexual Abuse (4.8%). Assuming that intakes equal the number of children in care in 2011, that means there were approximately 6,562 neglected children, 2,726 physically abused children and 479 sexually abused children in the system.
There were 18 child fatalities in open Children’s Administration (CA) cases of which 11 were due to abuse. At this point the published report seems a bit obtuse. In breaking down the 18 fatalities of kids in open cases they report a line “the number related to child abuse” as being 11 while in the next line they report “abuse-related fatalities in open CA cases” being 7. The wording suggests that, in fact, all 18 fatalities in open CA cases were due to abuse.