Child Welfare Information Gateway
In every state in the United States, teachers are subject to mandatory reporting laws (Smith 2006). In most cases that means the teacher is required to contact a law enforcement agency or child protective services regarding the allegations of abuse. The law is rapidly changing regarding the requirements for reporting abuse and in many cases mandatory reporting laws have been extended from child care professionals and medical professions to the clergy as well (Smith 2006).
Each state’s definition of when a teacher must report suspected abuse varies, but there is no state that penalizes a teacher who, acting in good faith made a report that turned out to be wrong. In the case of Mary, once her friend tells the teacher that Mary’s new step-father is “doing bad things to her”, the teacher is under a legal and moral obligation to report the suspected abuse to the proper authorities for investigation. If the teacher has reason to question the validity of Mary’s friend’s statement, she should explain that to the investigating authority as well, but making the report is an indisputable necessity.
Teachers and others who are listed as mandatory reporters can face civil and criminal penalties for failing to report suspected abuse if something untoward should happen to the child. More importantly, though teachers are trained to spot early signs of abuse and neglect and report them, teachers do not have the extensive training necessary to investigate the accusations and make a determination whether abuse is happening. In this way, a teacher is not only protecting the child, but also protecting herself in reporting (Smith 2006). The issue for the teacher can be one of legal protection and emotional protection.
Most people, including teachers, would feel tremendous guilt if they determine no abuse was happening, failed to report it to other authorities and then the child was injured through abuse.
The decision then to talk to Mary about the accusations is a difficult one. Obviously, if Mary has been a student that the teacher is close with and has routinely shared her private life with her teacher, then approaching the subject delicately can let Mary know there is someone on her side. However, if talking with Mary is mishandled, it could hamper her future school relationships and potentially hamper the official investigation into the abuse.
The correct way for a teacher to handle this would be to talk to the student privately at a time when it does not appear that talking with the teacher is punishment. Talking with her over a recess break or during a fun classroom activity could lead a seven-year-old to believe that she had done something wrong and was being punished for it.
Therefore, given Mary’s age it might be appropriate to begin the conversation in as non-threatening a manner as possible. Selecting Mary for a chance to offer “special assistance” to the teacher might be an easy way to arrange to have the conversation. If Mary is helping the teacher to retrieve supplies or set up a fun classroom segment, she might be more at ease than if a formal meeting were set up. Remember, the key is making Mary comfortable.
Once the when has been established, the how of the discussion becomes less arduous, though it is still a difficult task. The teacher must again continue to be as non-threatening as possible and must be certain not to betray Mary’s friend’s trust. If Mary believes her friend is “tattling” on her, she is likely to become more withdrawn and less willing to talk. One approach that might work is to ask Mary about the symptoms she was exhibiting in a non-accusatory way.
For example, asking Mary if she’s having trouble sleeping or casually discussing Mary’s home life. A teacher could consider an opening question like, “Mary, I noticed you seemed really sleepy this morning (last week, Tuesday, whenever). Do you have trouble sleeping at night like I do?” The teacher immediately establishes a common thread with Mary and does not appear to be asking about troubling or scary situations. Then, the teacher should ask deeper more pertinent questions based on the flow of the conversation.
If it is determined that Mary has been abused, the consequences for her could be grave. Most studies report that the age and amount of psychological development at the time of the abuse largely affect the long-term consequences. (Child Welfare 2006). In Mary’s case, long term physical effects can include poor health or injury, depending on what types of bag things her step-father is doing to her. Children who are exposed to sexual abuse face a danger of sexually-transmitted diseases in addition to the physical effects of the abuse.
Psychological consequences of the abuse can be even more damaging, long term. An abused child is likely to have inappropriate social boundaries, either being to gregarious and open sexually or becoming withdrawn. They often also face cognitive development problems and mental health issues.
As teens, children who were abused face greater risks of drug and alcohol abuse and greater instances of juvenile delinquency and crime. In short, if this is occurring, then Mary needs to be protected as soon as possible. (Child Welfare 2006). Longitudinal studies have shown that the longer the abuse continues, the more drastic the consequences might be.
Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006 , http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/long_term_consequences.cfm, July 24, 2007.
Smith, Susan K. “Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect” Nov. 2, 2006, <http://www.smithmoorellc.com/mandatory_reporting.htm> July 24, 2007.