Sometimes we witness something so wrong that the memory of it haunts us. At the time it happened, however, we weren't sure what to do.
Child abuse is one of these events. We may see a child being verbally abused in public. A parent may lose control and hit a child in the face. A parent may shake a young child in frustration. We may observe suspicious bruises on a child in our care.
Many child-care providers wonder what their responsibility is in such a situation. In many states, child-care providers are required to report any suspected abuse or neglect of children in their care. Yet providers may still be uncertain exactly when reports should be made. Should we report parents to authorities? Should we say something directly to parents about their parenting? Should we offer parents support to help prevent more serious problems? There are often no clear answers, but these guidelines may help you decide what to do.
In many states, child-care providers are "mandated" (required by law) to report any suspicion of child abuse to the proper authorities. If you are a mandated reporter of child abuse, you should make a report as soon as you suspect that a child is being abused. You do not need proof, only an honest belief that a child is being abused or neglected. "Scared Silent," published by the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, and "Care Enough to Call," from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, list the following indicators that may lead you to suspect abuse.
Reporting child abuse is serious business. As child-care providers, we do not want to jeopardize positive relationships with parents, but our responsibility to children comes first. When you call to report suspected abuse or neglect, expect to give the victim's name and address, report what you believe is happening, and tell the name of the supposed offender. You may be asked to put your report in writing. An investigation will probably follow, and you may or may not be notified of the results.
The decision to report can be difficult. It may help to discuss the issue with other providers while keeping the family identity confidential. Talking about such a problem can help you sort it out, and you can provide support for each other.
At times, you may witness parents behaving in inappropriate ways with their children, but the behavior does not warrant a report for abuse or neglect. All families face difficulties. There are times when children and parents struggle with hardship and each other. Some parents have limited parenting skills, or they may be stretched to their personal limits because of stress. Sometimes parents lose control of themselves and treat their children poorly. If child-care providers openly criticize an already stressed parent's behavior, it could make matters worse. It is better to help parents who are in stressful situations regain control.
Model appropriate behavior to parents. If a tired and stressed parent is rough with a child who will not hurry to put her coat on, you could say sympathetically, "Is there anything I can do to help? Can I help with your coat?" Kindness to parents may work better in preventing further abuse than giving dirty looks or making negative comments about their parenting style. Parents may refuse your help, but at least you will know you have tried. You could also try to defuse the situation by
Child-care providers have excellent opportunities to share their knowledge and skills with parents. You can involve parents in informal discussions, make brochures and resources available through newsletters and lending libraries, offer classes at your child-care facility, and encourage parent discussion groups. You are probably one of the very best sources of information available to parents.
Deciding when to report parents for child abuse or when to offer support and education can sometimes be a difficult decision. Remember, in many states the law does not require that you have proof to report a parent, only an honest belief that a child is being abused or neglected. If you are unsure whether you are a mandated reporter, contact your licensing representative or the agency responsible for child welfare. Follow the law and your conscience and do what you think is in the child's best interest.