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Let’s Talk…Child Abuse and Reporting

November 14, 2011

Lesia Oesterreich shares some thoughts on a topic that is on many of our minds lately…child abuse and reporting of that abuse.  Malisa

The recent events at Penn State regarding sexual abuse of young boys are sending shockwaves across the nation.  Sadly, this is not the first– nor the last –that we will hear of children being sexually victimized.

During my career as a teacher and educator, I’ve had to deal with sexual abuse cases of young children much too often. My first experience involved a sexual attack on two five-year old girls in a public restroom on a Head Start field trip. That situation was traumatic, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about what was happening. Adults intervened quickly, rescued the girls, called 911 and the police apprehended the suspect.

My second experience was much more muddled and not so easily resolved. It involved a growing awareness and suspicion of a teacher sexually abusing a child. In this troubling situation, I had to carefully document and report my observations to the authorities.

Several years later, I once again found myself reporting suspected abuse – but this time by a parent.   And in the months that followed, I found myself phoning the authorities to report sexual abuse of a child by an older sibling.  These were heart-breaking cases and I lost many night’s sleep worrying and agonizing about each situation.

So what have I learned from these experiences?   Well, a few things   . .  .

It is our job and responsibility to protect children. Most children have been taught to respect and obey adults. They do not have the skills to successfully handle sexual abusers or predators — especially if the individual is a family member or a friend. We can teach our children basic precautions, but this cannot replace good adult supervision. We must take the necessary steps to safeguard our schools and communities to keep children safe.

We must build trusting relationships with children. All children need caring adults who will listen and talk with them about small everyday things.  So when big things come up – worrisome, troubling things, they know who they can turn to for support and help.

We must educate ourselves and others. I don’t enjoy reading about sexual abuse and I bet you don’t either. But if we truly care about children, we need to take the time to learn and share this important information.  Two excellent resources you may want to check out:

1.     Characteristics and Behavioral Indicators of Adults Who Molest Children outlines common ways that an adult who molests children approaches and intimidates the victim. It’s scary stuff, but important to know.

2.     Recognizing and Preventing Child Abuse provides information for understanding child abuse, warning signs how to help the abused child and how to report child abuse.

We must have the courage to report our concerns. Most caregivers and educators are required by law to report. Most would argue that we also have a moral obligation to do so. Nevertheless, reporting is scary and uncomfortable. Trust your gut – admit your fears and take a stand. It isn’t necessary to have absolute proof. All that is required is a “reasonable suspicion.” Childhelp® is a national organization that provides crisis assistance and other counseling and referral services. It is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with professional crisis counselors who have access to a database of 55,000 emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are anonymous. You can contact them at 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453).

We must continue to follow through until we see action. Sometimes the system works and sometimes it doesn’t.  I’ve learned it is okay to push a bit. I call this the “Mama Bear” approach. Report –and report again, if necessary.  A child’s life may depend upon your persistence.

What challenges have you experienced in supporting children who may have been abused? What concerns do you have about our current reporting systems?  We would love to hear your thoughts.

Lesia Oesterreich

Malisa Rader

Malisa Rader

Malisa Rader is a human sciences specialist that misses the daily hugs and high-fives from little people.

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  1. Just a consideration – do some programs have policies that require teachers to report their concerns/suspicions to the director? And then who reports to the authorities? What if the teacher thinks it should be reported but the director doesn’t report it? Any thoughts?

  2. Hi Kerry, I worked in an early childhood program where the policy was that teachers would inform the administration when reporting child abuse to the proper authorities. I know of at least one instance where this saved some heart ache. We had a child with a Mongolian spot on his buttocks. It looks very similar to bruising, but is simply a birthmark. A substitute teacher was prepared to call in her suspicion of child abuse after a diaper change, but thankfully she talked with the director before making the phone call. In this program, even though the director was informed it was the teacher (or whoever had the most information) that made the initial phone call. Hopefully classroom teachers gain an understanding in mandatory child abuse reporter training that if they suspect child abuse might be happening, they are obligated by law to report it to proper authorities. It is not their job to prove the child abuse, and its ok even if it is not found to be child abuse – that is for those trained in that capacity to decide.

  3. Because reporting is often uncomfortable and scary, it’s important to continue the conversation with your supervisor following the report. When you suspect that a child is being abused, it leads to a range of emotions — fear, denial, anger, and a lot of worry. I found that it makes a tremendous difference if you can discuss your feelings and thoughts with co-workers in a confidential setting.

    Take the time now to create a community of care and support in your work environment. It takes both individual responsibility and a village of support to offer our best for children.

  4. Yes, how true. No matter how we try to protect our child … danger just seems to come from all directions. Sometimes you cant blame parents or teachers to be overprotective.

    Good Read.