Understanding Child Abuse & Neglect

While a painful reality that most of us wish to avoid, all professionals working with children are ethically responsible to be aware of the indicators of child abuse and neglect, as well as what to do when abuse or neglect is suspected.

It’s upsetting to think about child maltreatment, especially when we are in the profession of providing care to young children. What comes to mind when you think of child abuse? For most of us, we will think of high profile cases from the media —severe sexual abuse, malnourishment, physical discipline. Some of us may think of people who discipline their children in public or threaten to do so. Or we may have our own experiences of abuse from the past or current, including our own selves or someone we love. We feel mad, disillusioned, maybe overwhelmed.

As professionals, it’s our job to take these feelings and turn them into a keen awareness of the world around us. We need to channel this awareness and ensure we are properly trained to do right by our child charges.

Definitions of Abuse & Neglect

Experts think about child abuse as an act of “commission”—something harmful that is done deliberately. Child neglect, on the other hand, is an act of “omission”—the withholding of something that is needed in order to be physically and psychologically safe. Some examples of each are listed below.[1]

Abuse Neglect
Physical abuse Lack of appropriate adult supervision
Emotional abuse Poor body hygiene
Sexual abuse Lack of proper medical attention
Injurious environment Injurious environment
Exploitation of a child Exploitation of a  child
Lack of adequate diet
Educational neglect

Find Quality Training

It is our job, as professionals who care for children, to be appropriately trained about how to recognize indicators of child abuse and neglect. Proper training increases our abilities to thoughtfully notice and respond to concerns that arise within the families we service and the community at-large.

The best way to locate training in your community is to reach out to the early childhood profession. Licensed educators are mandated to attend and to renew their training in the recognition and reporting of child abuse and neglect. To find trainings near you, search the internet for mandated reporter trainingand your state name. Attend live training; do not settle for an online course. (I equate it to CPR training; you need to connect with colleagues and with a trainer face-to-face). Renew your training every 1 to 2 years.

Mandated Reporting

The reason licensed educators must provide proof of this training is because they are among the many professions who are legally mandated to report suspected child abuse or neglect. You will notice the use of the word suspected. It is not our job to prove or disprove abuse or neglect; it is our job to know the signs and to report it to our local child protection agency. It is their job to determine the reality.

Most laws protect mandated reporters from liability, meaning that if you make a report in good faith and an investigation determines that the child was not in danger, you would be protected from legal ramifications. On the flip side, if someone uses child abuse reports as a way to harass an individual, they can be held accountable (think, for example, of an ugly divorce process where parents report on each other as a means to manipulate custody orders).

You can look up your own state’s laws to see the wording about which professions are mandated. I have always found it fascinating to see how different states word the list of professions that are mandated to report. As a professional nanny, I recommend that you equate yourself to an early childhood educator and, therefore, you function under the same mandates. I always tell my students that I want them to, at minimum, be as well trained as the teachers at a national child care center.

Most of us don’t sit around and read laws, but when it comes to child abuse and neglect, I have found this to be the best way to get familiar with the basics. Upon reading the law, you may feel overwhelmed; use this feeling to motivate yourself to register for a full-length training where you will have the opportunity to do some case studies and to learn the specifics of what to look for and who to call in your community.

Shari Nacson is a freelance editor and clinical social worker in private practice, specializing in child/adolescent psychotherapy, parent guidance, and consultation. An experienced adult educator, Ms. Nacson’s courses include infant & toddler development; collaboration among professional providers and parents; child abuse & neglect; and the ethics of court-involved cases. She currently serves as a contributor to Safe and Sound Schools, where she serves as author, public speaker and consultant regarding developmentally mindful school safety strategies. Contact Shari at snacson@yahoo.com.

[1] A helpful article that includes examples of abuse and neglect can be found at: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/whatiscan.pdf.


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