Protecting Child Welfare and Preventing Abuse: A Guide for Social Workers and Educational Professionals

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Children and adolescents rely on their parents, caretakers, and other trusted adults to ensure they are safe, happy, and supported. They are among the most vulnerable members of society, and that leaves them open to mistreatment by the people who are supposed to care for them. Child abuse is a monumental issue that affects millions of people throughout the country. According to the 2017 Child Maltreatment Report, nearly 700,000 children are abused — and almost 2,000 die — as a result of abuse in the United States each year.

A redheaded woman playfully holds her smiling baby up in the air

Because they are susceptible to maltreatment, ensuring the safety and welfare of children doesn’t just fall on family members or caretakers. Social workers, school counselors, and teachers all play a huge role in protecting children and intervening in possible cases of abuse or neglect. The long-term effects of child abuse are devastating, if not fatal; educational professionals must fully understand this issue so they are prepared to intervene in any possible abuse cases.

To intervene, you need to know what constitutes child abuse, what its signs and symptoms are, what factors put certain children at a greater or lesser risk of abuse, and how to report suspected abuse to the proper authorities. Further, it’s important to understand how to help support children and students who have been abused, as they face unique challenges and have specific needs while coping with this experience. By knowing how to identify and report abuse, as well as offer much-needed support to abuse survivors, you may be able to help save a life.

What Is Child Abuse?

The term “child abuse” is used to refer to any purposeful mistreatment of a child. However, its legal definition isn’t always clear. In the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the federal government defines child abuse as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation” or “an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” Though states must follow the minimum standards set by the federal government, each state defines child abuse differently. It’s important to familiarize yourself with both the federal definition, as well as the definition set by your own state or municipality.

In this context, it’s worth noting that “child” refers to any individual who is either under the age of 18 or who is not an emancipated minor. Under this definition, older children and adolescents are also protected by child abuse laws, and even if someone is 16 or 17 years old, purposefully harming them can still be considered child abuse.

While some individuals and organizations use them interchangeably, others differentiate between the terms “child abuse” and “child maltreatment.” Child maltreatment can be used as an umbrella term to refer to child abuse, neglect, and other forms of child exploitation and mistreatment. For the purposes of this guide, we will use “child abuse” exclusively to reduce any confusion and be as specific as possible.

Types of Child Abuse

There are many different forms that child abuse can take, but most states and organizations place abuse in one of four larger categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. These different types of abuse can occur either simultaneously or alone, although recent research has found that co-occurrence rates of different forms of child abuse are largely underestimated. So though it is important to understand the different ways abuse can occur, it’s equally important to understand a child’s unique experience, whether or not it can be easily placed in one of these four categories.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is any sort of deliberate physical injury inflicted upon a child. Accidental injury is not considered abuse. However, if the abuser intends to hurt the child and it results in physical injury, it’s considered physical child abuse, even if the resulting injury is not what the abuser intended. Examples of physical abuse include:

  • Hitting, kicking, slapping, or beating
  • Pushing, shaking, or throwing
  • Biting, choking, or pinching
  • Burning, drowning, or cutting
  • Using an object or weapon
  • Any type of severe physical action or punishment

Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse involves any activity that engages a child in sexual acts or contact for the arousal or gratification of the abuser. Generally, people under the age of 16 cannot consent to any sexual activities, especially with an adult, though the age of consent varies from state to state. If a child or teenager expresses sexual interest in an adult, it is always the responsibility of the adult to decline, regardless of the child’s behavior or reactions. However, physical contact does not need to occur for the act to be considered sexual abuse. Examples of child sexual abuse include:

  • Engaging in any sexual acts, such as kissing, fondling, or intercourse
  • Any sort of exhibitionist behavior, such as exposing genitals to a child
  • Watching a child undress or use the bathroom
  • Taking sexual pictures or videos of a child
  • Exposing a child to sexual activities, including adult activity
  • Encouraging or forcing a child to engage in prostitution

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is any pattern of words and actions that deliberately attacks and deteriorates a child’s emotional, social, and mental development. It may also be called verbal, mental, or psychological abuse. Though it leaves no physical marks, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as sexual or physical abuse. Further, it can be incredibly detrimental to a child’s mental health, and it can affect physical and mental health well into adulthood. Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Constant criticism, mocking, or belittling
  • Insulting, blaming, manipulating, or rejecting
  • Withholding love and support
  • Not providing a safe environment or allowing the child to witness abuse between adults
  • Threatening the child with violence or other forms of abuse

Neglect

Neglect is the failure, refusal, or inability of a parent or caretaker to properly care or provide for a child, to the point that it endangers their lives and wellbeing. Neglect is the most common type of child abuse; the previously cited Child Maltreatment report found that almost 75% of all children who are abused experience neglect. Additionally, neglect frequently precedes or accompanies other forms of abuse. Examples of neglect include:

  • Failure or refusal to provide food, water, shelter, clothing, or medical care
  • Failure or refusal to enroll a child in school or meet other educational needs
  • Failure or refusal to supervise a child when they are too young to be left alone
  • Failure or refusal to provide love, affection, emotional support, or psychological care

Child Abuse Statistics

  • The World Health Organization also reports that one in five women and one in 13 men were sexually abused during their childhood.
  • According to the latest Child Maltreatment Report, either one or both of the child’s parents are the most common perpetrators of abuse.
  • That same report found that younger children are significantly more likely to be abused, with children under one year of age being abused far more frequently than children over one year of age.
  • It also reports that almost five children in the United States die each day because of child abuse.

Signs of Child Abuse

Abuse can be difficult to recognize, as the signs of abuse can be confused with normal childhood experiences or other issues. Cuts and bruises, for instance, may be from playing or from accidental injury rather than physical abuse. Knowing all of the signs of child abuse, as well as taking a full account of the child’s physical and mental health, can make it much easier for you to correctly identify abuse.

Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Has any cuts, broken bones, bruises, welts, burn marks, or injuries that can’t be explained or don’t match the given story
  • Has injury marks with a pattern, such as from a hand or belt
  • Has injuries that are in different stages of healing
  • Has untreated medical or dental issues
  • Reports physical abuse or behaviors consistent with physical abuse

Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Has bruising, bleeding, or irritation around genitals
  • Has bloody, stained, or torn underwear
  • Becomes pregnant or contracts a sexually transmitted disease
  • Engages in inappropriate sexual behavior with other children or adults
  • Has sexual knowledge or activity that is inappropriate for their age
  • Reports sexual abuse or behaviors consistent with sexual abuse

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can be more difficult to identify than other forms of abuse, since it does not leave a physical mark. Further, the symptoms of emotional abuse may be confused with symptoms of other social, emotional, or mental issues. However, it does have some clear warning signs:

  • Displays inappropriate or delayed emotional, social, and mental development
  • Loses previously acquired skills
  • Has a loss of self-confidence or a decrease in self-esteem
  • Appears depressed or anxious
  • Is socially isolated or withdrawn
  • Loses interest in hobbies, friendships, or enjoyable activities
  • Is constantly worried about doing something wrong or always tries to please others
  • Is desperate for attention and affection
  • Reports emotional abuse or behaviors consistent with emotional abuse

Signs of Neglect

  • Has poor hygiene or always looks dirty
  • Has poor growth and weight gain
  • Doesn’t receive needed medical, dental, or mental health care
  • Lacks clothing or supplies to meet physical needs
  • Takes food and saves it for later, or overeats when food is present
  • Takes money without permission
  • Is often absent from school or performs poorly in school
  • Is often left alone or left with other young children
  • Reports neglect or behaviors consistent with neglect

Parental Behavior

Sometimes, the way a child’s parent or caretaker behaves can be a sign that they are abusing their child.

  • Shows little or no concern for their child
  • Uses harsh discipline and punishments, especially physical ones
  • Blames the child for all of their problems
  • Constantly and publicly belittles, mocks, or insults their child
  • Does not notice or does not care about their child’s physical or emotional distress
  • Sets unreasonable or impossible standards for their child, especially for academic performance or in extracurricular activities
  • Provides contradictory or clearly false explanations for a child’s injuries
  • Abuses alcohol or drugs
  • Has a history of abuse or violent behavior

Protective & Risk Factors for Child Abuse

There are certain risk factors that are linked to higher rates of child abuse and neglect, as well as protective factors that are associated with lower rates of abuse. These factors do not guarantee that a child will or won’t experience abuse, and they may or may not be the reason a caregiver chooses to perpetrate abuse. A family could have all of the risk factors associated with child abuse and never maltreat their children, and, conversely, a family with all of the associated protective factors could still do so. Further, abuse is never the fault of the child, regardless of which risk and protective factors are present.

For educators, social workers, and other professionals working in the child welfare system, understanding these different risk and protective factors can be helpful for developing prevention strategies and proper intervention. Knowing which families need extra support could help reduce the possibility of abuse altogether. Additionally, learning more about how protective factors interact can help child welfare professionals determine the best ways to prevent abuse, intervene in situations of abuse, and support families and children who have experienced abuse.

Risk Factors

Risk factors can generally be broken down into three different categories: individual, family, and community. Again, risk factors do not guarantee child abuse; they are simply present in many substantiated instances of abuse.

Individual Risk Factors

  • Was an unplanned child or unwanted by parents
  • Is younger than four years old
  • Was born prematurely or with other birth anomalies
  • Has any sort of disability or chronic condition
  • Has behavioral difficulties or a challenging temperament
  • Has already experienced some kind of childhood trauma

Parental/Family Risk Factors

  • Is socially isolated from friends and community
  • Experiences continual high levels of stress
  • Is a single parent lacking help or support
  • Is separated or divorced from the child’s other parent
  • Has a history of untreated mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression
  • Is unemployed or experiencing homelessness
  • Has a history of or is currently involved in criminal or illegal activities
  • Has a poor or difficult relationship with the child
  • Abuse, conflict, or violence between parents
  • Has an unrealistic idea or lacks knowledge of proper child development
  • Abuse of drugs and alcohol by parents or caretaker
  • Was abused as a child
  • Has a history of abuse of animals, romantic partners, family members, or other children

Community Risk Factors

  • Violence in the neighborhood or community
  • Lacks access to medical care, social services, or childcare
  • Has limited educational options or attends poor schools
  • Lives in a low socioeconomic area
  • Is exposed to harassment and discrimination
  • Is exposed to environmental toxins or other unhealthy living conditions
  • Lives in a disadvantaged neighborhood or area

Protective Factors

Similarly, protective factors are also categorized into individual, family, and community factors.

Individual Protective Factors

  • Is in good health and meeting common childhood development milestones
  • Has their own hobbies, interests, and social life
  • Maintains strong relationships with their peers and has community support
  • Has positive self-esteem and good coping skills
  • Has a positive relationship with parents and other family members

Parental/Family Protective Factors

  • Has supportive family members and a positive household environment
  • Can provide basic needs for safety, health, and comfort of the child
  • Has healthy boundaries, rules, and structure
  • Has a community of support, extended family members, and caregivers
  • Has knowledge of childhood development
  • Maintains stable employment
  • Has healthy coping skills and models positive behaviors

Community Protective Factors

  • Lives in a mid- or high-level socio-economic area
  • Has access to healthcare and social services
  • Attends good schools
  • Has a strong and supportive community

Who Can Protect Child Welfare?

Everyone can protect child welfare; you simply have to learn how to identify abuse and report it if you encounter it. However, some professionals are in an especially appropriate position to intervene. Educators, school counselors, school nurses, social workers, and special education professionals often maintain close relationships with the children they encounter in their work, providing unique insights into their lives and behavior.

Further, all of these professionals are mandated reporters, meaning they are legally required to disclose any known or suspected abuse to the proper authorities. Mandated reporting laws vary between states, but almost every state requires professionals who frequently work with children to report abuse. In some states, everyone is considered a mandated reporter, regardless of their profession, and in all 50 states, anyone is allowed to report concerns of child abuse.

Educators

Teachers, teachers’ aides, and other educators play a vital role in preventing and responding to child abuse because they spend more time with their students than other professionals. Students’ interactions with adults and other students, their behavior in the classroom, and their academic performance can all offer clues to their home lives. The multiple avenues that teachers and educators have to interact with students gives them even more opportunities to discover abuse.

Research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that “a positive relationship with a supporting adult may enhance the resiliency of children who have been abused, are at-risk for being abused, or live in a home where no maltreatment occurs but the family experiences other problems.” Teachers and other educational professionals often develop these positive relationships naturally with their students. A close bond with a teacher can bring comfort, and some students may even confide in an educator they trust about the issues they’re experiencing at home. Though technology is changing the future and nature of the classroom, the social and emotional connection teachers have with their students will still be important, and necessary, to teach them effectively. This connection makes educators a critical first line of defense in identifying and preventing abuse.

School Counselors

School counselors play an equally important role in identifying and reporting child abuse. For the most part, students don’t spend as much time with a counselor as they do with their teachers, but the students who do see school counselors with regularity tend to develop close relationships with them. Since counselors and other mental health professionals are confidants to their patients, it’s only natural for students to disclose their difficulties to them, including any abuse.

Additionally, school counselors and other mental health professionals have received the necessary education to know how to help students in a more holistic manner. By studying psychology, they’re prepared to handle the various aspects of helping a student cope with abuse with sensitivity, cultural competence, and compassion. Not only do they know how to report abuse, they often do so with greater frequency than previously thought. A recent report found that school counselors are more likely to report child abuse than they are to suspect it, “expressing willingness

to err toward reporting if the possibility of abuse was present.” Child abuse often goes unreported, and this willingness to help if abuse is at all possible can be life-saving.

School Nurses

Similar to school counselors, school nurses may not spend as much time with students as other educators, but they are armed with additional expertise and resources that make it easier for them to identify and intervene in cases of abuse. Nurses and nurse practitioners with a specialization in pediatrics will have the necessary knowledge to deal with everyday issues and ailments, such as bullying or chronic illness, as well as the more complicated issue of child abuse, with discretion and sympathy. They may even be able to discover signs of abuse when treating or assisting students with one of these unrelated problems.

A growing body of research shows the crucial role school nurses play in preventing child abuse. Every day they undertake a number of important activities that can help protect children from abuse, including receiving continual training and education, supporting children and their family members, conducting detective work to determine whether or not abuse is occurring, and identifying barriers that make it more difficult to protect children from abuse. They are also trained to help support children who have experienced abuse, building relationships with their students to help them build up confidence and trust.

Social Workers

Social workers frequently work in the child welfare system, both in and outside of schools. They also deal with a number of difficult situations that can impact children, their health, and their well-being. Further, social workers often get their bachelor’s degree in sociology, which covers a variety of relevant topics that can be useful in working with children, such as community responsibility, mental illness, and juvenile delinquency. Because of these diverse educational and professional experiences, social workers have an incredibly unique and valuable perspective to bring to prevention and intervention in child abuse cases.

Social workers are also trained to support the families of the children they serve. Even if the child is removed from their home for protection, they must interact with family members, and possibly abusers, to determine the best course of action for maintaining the child’s safety. Though prevention is usually their primary focus, social workers’ role in the intervention and post-response support is imperative to the success of both mistreated children and their family members.

Special Education Professionals

As discussed above, children with disabilities are more vulnerable and therefore more likely to experience abuse than their peers who do not have a disability. Special education professionals and other aides who work with children with disabilities can help protect them from abuse while advocating for their needs. Because they often spend one-on-one time with each other, they know their students well and may be more likely to spot any signs of abuse than other educators. They’re also likely familiar with the fact that children with disabilities are abused more frequently and may pay closer attention to any of their students who they have concerns about. Since this group of children is more susceptible to abuse, having special education professionals who can support and protect them is a necessity for both abuse prevention and intervention.

What to Do if You Suspect Child Abuse

Whether or not you’re a mandated reporter, if you have any concerns or suspicions that a child you know is being abused, you should report it as soon as possible. Keep in mind that in some states, all people are considered mandated reporters, and you may have a legal responsibility, as well as an ethical one, to disclose any suspected child abuse. Most states accept anonymous reports, and, except in very limited or unusual circumstances, the entire contents of your report will remain confidential.

You do not have to prove that abuse is occurring; in fact, you don’t even have to know if it is. If you suspect child abuse, you can and should report it. Simply tell the authorities about what you saw or experienced that led you to believe that a child was experiencing abuse. Be as honest and thorough as possible. The branch of child protective services (CPS) in your state will then determine whether or not an investigation is necessary. If it is, they will take next steps after receiving your report to investigate and intervene.

How to Report Child Abuse

How you report child abuse — and who you report it to — varies from state to state. The Child Welfare Information Gateway maintains a list of state child abuse and neglect reporting numbers and websites where you can reach out to disclose abuse. You can also call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for assistance and information on how to report abuse and the proper place to report it to. However, if someone is in serious or imminent danger, call 911 immediately to get help.

How to Offer Support After Abuse

Children who have been abused need different care and support than children who have not been abused. As an educator, social worker, or other professional involved in their life, you need to understand the effects they may face now and in the future because of abuse, and what they need from the positive adult relationships in their lives to heal and overcome it. Always be patient, supportive, and respectful as you help them build up their confidence and self-esteem in a safe and structured environment. Though helping children cope with abuse can be difficult, it’s much better to speak up and get them the help they need.

Additional Resources and Further Reading

For more information on child abuse prevention and intervention, consult the following resources and organizations:

  • AVANCE: This nonprofit organization works to strengthen low-income families by helping them overcome isolation and lack of opportunity.
  • Child Welfare Information Gateway: A service offered by the federal Children’s Bureau, this website aims to protect the welfare of children with educational materials and resources.
  • CyberTipline: This hotline takes reports of online exploitation of children, and will help reporters determine the best law enforcement agency or authority to contact.
  • GenerationFIVE: This organization’s goal is to put an end to child sexual abuse within the next five generations.
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Created by Congress as part of the Children’s Health Act, this organization works to improve access to the services that traumatized children, their families, and their communities need.
  • Parents Anonymous: This organization helps strengthen family bonds to help prevent abuse and neglect before it ever happens.
  • Prevent Child Abuse America: This nonprofit organization works to prevent child abuse and neglect, and improve the health and wellbeing of children across the U.S.
  • The Resilience Project: This organization works to help build up the resiliency of and support children who have been exposed to violence, adverse childhood events, and trauma.
  • Stop It Now!: This nonprofit group works to prevent child sexual abuse by strengthening and educating communities all around the country.