Thursday, April 19, 2018

Could You Identify a Child Being Abused or Neglected?

If you didn't already know, I am a child abuse investigator. Family members, community members, teachers, medical professionals, and countless other people report via a hotline when they suspect a child is being abused or neglected. My job is to follow up on those reports, visit the children, the caregivers, other people familiar with the family, collect medical records, speak with teachers, and gather any other information which can help me determine if a child is a victim of abuse or neglect.

By far the most frequent form of child abuse is neglect. Dirty homes, lack of food, caregiver/parent substance abuse, failure to send the child to school (or effectively home school), and many other factors could be considered neglect. In most cases children are not removed from the home, but programs and services are put in place to help correct the conditions. Child Welfare's goal is to keep a family in tact, not to remove children from the home.

Abuse may be physical (Beating, hitting, slapping, confinement, etc), emotional (verbal abuse, isolation, etc.), and sexual abuse (molesting, touching, exposure to adult sexuality, etc.). Abuse is not always obvious, but you can be sure if one type of abuse is noticeable, there is most likely other types of abuse going on as well. Again, Child Welfare's goal is not to remove children from their home, but with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, removal is not uncommon.

I often hear the same concerns from folks who are reluctant to disclose knowledge of abuse or neglect. Those concerns are the children aren't really being mistreated that badly, they don't believe the abuse or neglect to be significant enough to have to report, they fear becoming involved, or they don't trust government enough to involve them in protecting a child.

I want to help reassure those of you out there who have concerns about or knowledge of a child being abused or neglected you may remain anonymous. We do not disclose who makes the reports of abuse or neglect. I also want to reassure you we are highly trained in the identification of abuse or neglect. This is not the type of job where you get hired on Thursday and are out knocking on doors on the following Monday. I myself, in addition to college degrees and 17 years of teaching experience, have close to 300 hours of additional training in the identification of abuse and neglect.

So, that being said, here are some of the signs of abuse and neglect that should raise red flags for you:
  • Marks or bruises from being struck. Bruises should NEVER been seen on a child who is immobile. Until a child starts to walk (holding onto objects while learning to walk counts), children should never have bruises. Children who are spanked for discipline do not get marks or bruises. Marks or bruises are left on children when they are spanked or struck out of anger. Spanking your children is not illegal, but a spanking should never leave an injury. Discipline should be reasonable and age appropriate. I have seen autopsy photos of a 5 week old baby who was spanked. 5 week old babies do nothing that would warrant a spanking.
  • Signs of neglect include dirty, malodorous children. Babies with dirt under their fingernails and around the creases in their neck. Severe diaper rash. Listless babies. Babies whose eyes are open, but appear vacant. Babies being fed whole milk instead of formula. Children who are not being fed (underweight, begging food, etc.) Young or small children outside unsupervised. Children who cry for extended periods of time for no apparent reason. Small children left home unsupervised.  Children who are ill, but not being seen by medical professionals. 
  • Significant injuries of unexplained origin or explanations that don't make sense/explain the injury. If you see a child with an injury and are offered an explanation that does not seem reasonable, ask more questions. Be especially concerned if the child is not yet verbal and/or the injuries are blamed on siblings who are not verbal as well. 
  • Burns of any kind. 
  • If a child appears fearful of a parent or caregiver, pay attention. One of the most common phrases we hear when responding to allegations of abuse or neglect is, "The child was being cared for by mother's boyfriend when the injury occurred." Also don't assume because Susie is a great person, she is above getting angry or frustrated enough to lash out on her child. Remember, child abuse knows no economic status. Rich people abuse children too. Just because a child lives in a nice home and the parent has a higher economic status does not mean they are immune to being abuse. 
  • Target children are something child welfare workers encounter with terrible frequency. These "targets" are the children who are reported to always be in trouble, always be doing something wrong, and are often described in terms of behaviors that would be intentional (He cries on purpose and knows it makes me mad. He pees his pants just to irritate me. She wets the bed just to make more work for me. etc.) Often target children are the children from previous relationships. Siblings and others in the home will often participate in the abuse as well. Sadly all too often, if the target child is removed from the family unit or dies, the abuse will move on to one of the other children. 

There are many, many ways children are abused and neglected (too much to really go into here in this brief blog post), but the key to getting these children (and families) help is by reporting suspected abuse or neglect to your local child abuse hotline.  It is important to remember most states have laws that state if you suspect abuse or neglect, it is a crime to fail to report it. Every state has a hotline and you can remain anonymous.

The hotline phone number for Oklahoma is 1-800-522-3511. If you are located in other states you can phone the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child. If you are a parent or caregiver who needs help, reach out to your local Human Services for assistance or referrals for help.

Intervening in abuse or neglect is everyone's responsibility. You could help save a child's life.