Child Abuse: The School’s Role
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Child abuse includes acts of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. It is estimated that about half of all children who are abused are of school age. The consequences of abuse can be profound for its victims, including physical and/or emotional injury, difficulty in building healthy relationships, and increased likelihood of engaging in child abuse as an adult.
Teachers and other school staff bear a special responsibility in helping to identify child abuse. Because they spend much time with students, they are often in a position to observe physical or behavioral changes suggesting a possible problem. As a result, they play a key role in detecting child abuse.
Recognizing the important role of educators in identifying child abuse, states requires school staff to contact the state department responsible for child services if they have “reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse.” The school staff member does not need confirmation from a second person to make the report. If school staff are not sure if what they are seeing is indicative of abuse, they are often encouraged to err on the side of making the report.
The role of the schools is limited to identifying children who may have been abused. Once a report is made to the state’s child protective agency, a caseworker is typically assigned to investigate. This case worker will take responsibility for following up with the child and the family, including trying to determine whether abuse has occurred, protecting the child, if necessary, and providing help to the family.
The case workers have the right to interview the child in school, talk with school personnel, and review his or her records without parent consent. Students may be interviewed alone or can request a familiar person to be present, but no “coaching” is permitted. Most information remains confidential during and after an investigation for legal reasons and to protect the child. Some information may be disclosed on a “need-to-know” basis.
While educators thus have the responsibility to report children suspected of being abused, you as a parent have the right to expect that they will use good judgment in deciding whether to make a report, will exercise discretion by only giving information to the people required to receive it, and will deal with your child in a sensitive manner.